A woman is comforted after breaking down during proceedings. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES
A woman is comforted after breaking down during proceedings. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

Police came under fire on Thursday for their "less than thorough" investigation into the deaths of psychiatric patients who died in the Life Esidimeni transfer debacle.

Senior police officer Maj-Gen Charles Johnson testified at the arbitration hearing on Thursday and listed a number of obstacles in investigating the cause of death in the 127 cases his investigating team was dealing with.

Adila Hassim‚ advocate for Section 27‚ which represents families of 55 of the deceased‚ asked Johnson whether it was not imperative that the bodies be exhumed in order to establish what caused their deaths.

Johnson said the police would‚ on conclusion of their investigation‚ be guided by the pathologists and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) regarding the feasibility of exhuming the bodies to determine the cause of death.

"How do you investigate‚ and how do you determine to the best of your ability the cause of death if the body has been interred for more than a year and, as time passes, the harder it becomes for exhumation to yield anything useful‚" Hassim asked.

Johnson said the police could not approach the magistrate to ask for exhumation if they did not have evidence that foul play was committed.

"My question is why were there no exhumations at the time … [when] it was brought to the attention of police that something was fishy regarding these deaths — that it seemed that these deaths were not due to natural causes. It is at that point [that] an approach to a magistrate should have been made‚" Hassim said.

She asked whether Johnson would agree with her that there was failure on the part of the police to act sooner.

"It appears to us that the investigation seems less than thorough‚" Hassim said.

Johnson denied the investigation was not thorough.

Hassim said 10 of the 55 deceased people that were represented by Section 27 were not on the list of deaths being investigated by the police.

Section 27 had provided police with affidavits relating to all 55 deceased‚ she said.

"Those are the reasons I am saying the investigating is not thorough‚" Hassim said.

Johnson said it was unfair to say the investigation was not thorough.

"Did counsel see contents of the docket. I accept that we can account for 127 deceased (instead of the 141 reported deaths). The only reason why is because of the delays and challenges that we experienced with DOH [the department of health] to obtain information. It is unfair‚" Johnson said.

The arbitration hearings had heard that 141 people had died after being transferred from Life Esidimeni care centres to non-governmental organisations (NGOs)‚ many of which were ill-equipped to care for the mentally ill.

Johnson‚ who is based at the police headquarters in Pretoria‚ said he had initially set up a five-person team but later realised that the "magnitude" of the investigation meant that the team needed to be expanded to eight members.

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