New Internationalist

A crack in impunity

Issue 391

Lindsey Collen on two women who have found the road to the truth exceedingly long when it concerns deaths in custody.

Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

‘Isn’t it strange,’ a friend of mine, Veronique Topize, said the other day at an informal meeting organized by the women’s movement, tilting her head philosophically, her long braids moving to one side, ‘that, after seven years of struggle for the truth, when we are about to have some victories, journalists are interested in nothing but how much money a widow will get?’ Her husband had died in police custody. And I thought how wise she is. Those seven years have seen court cases, autopsies and counter-autopsies, for which the State even flew out a British Home Office pathologist. Veronique had to fire her own lawyer in open court at one point, standing up to speak out from the public gallery. Such was her courage. Pressure was put on the Prime Minister to send her husband’s brain to a top pathological laboratory in Scotland. ‘A traumatic death,’ the report concluded. Then there were more petitions, open letters to the Justice Minister and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), appeals to four Prime Ministers as they succeeded each other in office, press conferences, public talks on the medical evidence and on legal aspects of the case, women’s night vigils, women’s demonstrations, mass concerts with torches.

Veronique’s husband, Kaya, a famous musician, composer and singer, was found dead in his police cell with 30 wounds on his body on 21 February 1999. He was one of a long list of young men who have died this way, while in custody. Thousands of others suffer beatings and torture with impunity. However, Kaya’s death was different from others before and since, in that it sparked off the biggest-ever nationwide rebellion that left police stations destroyed and all major roads blocked for days. In some areas, young men had set up barricades every 50 yards. Tourists, meanwhile, had to be kept inside hotel grounds by whatever pretexts could be thought up by hotel management teams.

Kaya’s widow was now, for the first time, meeting Bindoo Ramlogun, who sat there quietly in her widow’s white sari. Rajesh Ramlogun was killed this year in police custody. The atmosphere at the meeting was gentle, caring – and very moving. And yet, after a while, the two widows smiled as they shared the silly rumours about how much money they had supposedly ‘got’. Neither has ever received anything. Each has a damages case in court. But both are dedicated to getting the truth out.

Veronique Topize has been at it for seven years. Before her husband’s death, she was a housewife taking care of two young children. She had had hardly any schooling. She is now a hairdresser, specializing in braiding and beautiful extensions, to make a living. And at the same time she has embarked on what has turned out to be a life-changing experience just to get to the truth.

Unhappy with the findings after a few years of ‘no foul play’ in the long Judicial Enquiry, Topize persisted. She joined the women’s movement and with a lawyer and some political activists they built up an association, Justice, to unite victims of police violence and their families.

And now there are three important victories. First, the State will make out-of-court settlements with families, thus finally accepting its responsibility for deaths in custody. A formula for reparations is being drawn up, and families will not need to go through unending court cases.

Second, the DPP is preparing charges of murder and culpable homicide against seven police officers in the Ramlogun case. A crack in police impunity. However, the officer in charge, Raddhoa, is the man that the public, rightly, wants prosecuted. Popular with the business élite for his hard-handed tactics in these times of unemployment, burglaries and rising fascist ideas, he is hated by ordinary people who mobilize for more freedom. This means he vacillates, as the balance of forces changes, from promotions and medals to demotions to some hidden section of the police.

Third, the Justice Minister has announced a ‘Truth Commission’ into Kaya’s death.

The courage of the victims and their families as they have stood up together against torture has been definitive in bringing about these changes.

‘Why don’t the journalists explain where these victories come from?’ Veronique Topize ponders aloud to Bindoo Ramlogun. Never mind, they conclude quietly, victories they are. The result of struggle, they are. And the 1999 rebellion? Maybe it wasn’t in vain.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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