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Investigating officer Hilton Botha, the lead detective in the Pistorius case, sits in court during a break in proceedings on Thursday. (MIKE HUTCHINGS/REUTERS)
Investigating officer Hilton Botha, the lead detective in the Pistorius case, sits in court during a break in proceedings on Thursday. (MIKE HUTCHINGS/REUTERS)

Police blunders weaken case against Pistorius Add to ...

The disastrous performance of South Africa’s police force in the Oscar Pistorius murder case has taken another sensational twist, with the chief investigator removed from the case because of attempted-murder charges against him.

The investigator, Hilton Botha, had already blundered through a day of embarrassing mistakes and contradictions at the Pistorius bail hearing when the criminal charges were revealed. The charges were reportedly filed on Feb. 4, and the delay in removing him was a further sign of a police force in disarray, riddled with corruption, crime, poor training and sheer incompetence.

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Despite the police fiasco, prosecutor Gerrie Nel plunged ahead with his case on Thursday, arguing that the double-amputee Olympic hero must have deliberately killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. There was a litany of inconsistencies in the track star’s version of events, and his four gunshots could only have been aimed to kill, Mr. Nel said.

But the police blunders have weakened his chances against the “Blade Runner.”

The Pistorius case should have been an opportunity for South Africa’s police to showcase their skills in the global spotlight, in their highest-profile case in many years. Instead, it has exposed the crisis in their ranks.

Of the 157,000 police on active duty in South Africa, more than 27,000 have failed their firearm-proficiency tests, and more than 16,000 do not have driver’s licences, it was revealed last year. Hundreds of police are facing criminal charges, including murder and rape. The last two national police commissioners were dismissed for corruption, including one who was jailed for taking bribes from a convicted drug smuggler.

Millions of South African motorists are routinely asked for bribes by traffic police, and more than 630 police officers were arrested in 2011 in Gauteng province alone, mostly for fraud and corruption. Police torture cases are also common.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, which probes complaints against police, reported 10 cases of police officers convicted, sentenced or investigated for serious crimes this month alone. Among them: a police constable convicted of murder for shooting a 15-year-old; a warrant officer sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend; a constable arrested for murder after a female friend was killed; a constable sentenced to 15 years for murdering his girlfriend; a constable sentenced to 13 years for possessing an unlicensed firearm and killing a street vendor; and two warrant officers arrested for extorting bribes from a suspect.

The most infamous case of police violence was the killing of 34 protesting mineworkers at the Marikana platinum mine last August. Some of the victims were killed in a clash with police, but many were hunted down and deliberately shot, according to evidence at an inquiry.

Mr. Botha, who led the investigation of the Pistorius shooting case and became the key witness at the bail hearing this week, is facing seven charges of attempted murder. He and two colleagues are accused of drunkenly shooting at a minibus taxi with seven people inside it in a 2011 incident. The charges were dropped and then reinstated this month.

Mr. Botha has denied the charges, saying he was not drunk and he was firing at the tires of the minibus because a murder suspect was inside and the driver was trying to push the police off the road. He told journalists that the timing of the announcement of the charges must be linked to the Pistorius case.

The national police commissioner, Mangwashi Phiyega, said she did not learn of the charges until Wednesday, when Mr.Botha was already testifying at the bail hearing. She described him as an “excellent officer” who has not been suspended.

But she announced that he was being replaced on the case by the top detective on the police force – a lieutenant-general – which raised the obvious question of why the police had allowed the case to be handled by a more junior officer for its first week.

A decision on whether Mr. Pistorius will be freed on bail could be announced as early as Friday.

Mr. Botha seemed nervous and confused in his crucial day of testimony at the bail hearing this week. He admitted that he had violated procedural rules by walking through the crime scene without protective shoe covers, potentially contaminating the scene. He also admitted that he hadn’t noticed a key piece of evidence – a bullet in the toilet bowl – that the defence’s forensic team later discovered.

Mr. Botha also contradicted himself several times on key issues. He testified that a witness who allegedly heard shouting and arguing from Mr. Pistorius’s house, shortly before the shooting, was about 600 metres from the house – a distance that seemed implausibly great. Later he said the distance was about 300 metres.

He also overlooked evidence of several phone calls that Mr. Pistorius made to an ambulance service and security office after the shooting, and he apparently misidentified a herbal substance that was found in the athlete’s house.

In his most damaging concession, Mr. Botha said he found nothing to contradict the version of the shooting that Mr. Pistorius gave in his affidavit. This allowed the defence lawyer, Barry Roux, to trumpet the police testimony as proof that the athlete was innocent.

Force fiasco

27,000

The number of South African police officers on active duty who were supposed to carry official firearms on a daily basis but have failed their firearm-proficiency tests, according to a draft performance audit report of the South African Police Service dated December, 2011.

 

16,000

The number of police officers who do not have valid driver’s licences, despite an order in 2010 that all new recruits be able to drive, according to the National Traffic Information System.

 

10

The number of cases of police officers convicted, sentenced or investigated for serious crimes such as murder this month, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

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