South African police are denying detained undocumented HIV-positive migrants access to the crucial food needed to continue antiretroviral therapy, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
At least five hundred people, most believed to be Zimbabwean, were arrested during a late night raid Wednesday on the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, which has been a haven for Zimbabweans fleeing conditions at home during the last four years.
According to police spokesperson Captain Bhekizizwe Mavundla, several hundred were released soon after being taken into custody but at least 250 remain in custody, said Central Methodist Church Bishop Paul Verryn.
MSF spokesperson Alessandra Vilas Boas said the detainees did not have adequate food and were denied access to healthcare, and faced an uncertain future.
The organisation had been granted access to only 63 prisoners as of last Friday, when it was able to deliver ARV therapy to a small number of detainees running low on treatment. MSF nurse Bianca Tolboom said it was impossible to tell how many more had any medication, or none at all, but even for those with enough pills there was still the problem of having enough food.
Verryn battled to gain access to those incarcerated but, when he did, he said prisoners reported acts of continued police misconduct.
“We visited the police station to request a prayer service for the prisoners and, to make a long story short, all we got was five minutes.” He said the prisoners reported being assaulted and ridiculed by police, and being given only three slices of bread in a 15-hour period.
Tolboom said the standard fare in South African prisons was two slices of bread in the morning, another two with soup in the afternoon, followed by an evening meal. Although less than ideal, this would be adequate for someone on treatment if police kept to the schedule, she said.
HIV-positive members of the group are not the only ones in danger. Some people are on tuberculosis treatment while others are in need of emergency care. “At the end of last week I visited the police station, along with a doctor, and we made a list of people who urgently needed medical attention at the hospital level, “ Tolboom said.
Almost three days later, the two most serious patients – a severely anaemic pregnant woman and a woman diagnosed with acute psychosis, anaemia and anorexia – were the only ones who had been taken to a state hospital for medical treatment.
“You could see by the third day all the women were crying and the men were becoming angry and impatient,” Tolboom said. “If things were hard on them as immigrants from Zimbabwe before, this trauma has made it harder.”
Mavundla declined to confirm or deny whether anyone had been taken for medical treatment and suggested that all allegations of police misconduct be referred to the South African oversight body, the Independent Complaints Directorate.
Verryn said he and his staff have already filed complaints with the body.
A large number of the detained migrants were due to be released on Monday evening after prosecutors decided not to proceed against most of the about 100 individuals who appeared in the magistrate’s court in Johannesburg earlier that day. Between 300 and 350 people had been scheduled to appear.
George Bizos, a human rights lawyer and past legal council for Nelson Mandela, represented a portion of the cases prosecuted though most were ultimately dismissed, according to Richard Moultrie, Bizos’ colleague at the Legal Resource Centre.
Bizos and Moultrie said they were only aware of one case in which a man was prosecuted and that he was granted bail because he had a broken arm and was in urgent need if medical care. They said they believed a large number of the migrants were still being held by the police.