The South African government should bring to justice officials responsible for the January 30 arbitrary arrest and mistreatment of some 1,300 people seeking refuge at Johannesburg’s Methodist Church, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 15, a Johannesburg High Court judge ordered the immediate release of nine of those arrested, saying that the raid and the state’s response was “a brutal, indifferent, and cruel treatment of human beings.”

On February 15, a Johannesburg High Court judge ordered the immediate release of nine of those arrested, saying that the raid and the state’s response was “a brutal, indifferent, and cruel treatment of human beings.”

“The injustice started on January 30 when police brutally arrested more than 1,000 men, women, and children sheltered in the church,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Their ordeal will only end when the government holds those responsible to account.”

The South African Police Services said the raid on the church was carried out to search for drugs, firearms, and “illegal” immigrants. During the raid, the police physically assaulted and arrested without legal basis an estimated 1,300 people in the church, many of whom were Zimbabwean migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. There were credible eyewitness reports of police officers beating individuals in the church and ill-treating the resident bishop.

The raid appeared to have been carried out in violation of South African law, which requires searches to be conducted with “strict regard to decency and order.” The raid was reportedly conducted under a police warrant, but without the permission of a magistrate. The South African nongovernmental organization Lawyers for Human Rights is challenging the legality of the warrant.

Several hours after the raid, the police released about 800 people and charged at least 68 of the remaining detainees with either violating South Africa’s immigration law or with common robbery. Officers denied detainees access to sufficient food and water. People living with HIV/AIDS went without needed medication or treatment.

Detainees remaining in police custody on immigration charges also experienced delays in getting bail. After repeated efforts by state officials to delay bail applications, the nongovernmental organization Legal Resources Centre, which was representing many detainees, brought an urgent review in the Johannesburg High Court.

On February 15, the reviewing judge immediately withdrew charges against these detainees and ordered the release of those remaining in custody. The reviewing judge also ordered a Magistrates Commission to launch an investigation into the conduct of the magistrate who had earlier delayed their bail applications, and to make its findings public. The judge offered an apology to the detainees for their mistreatment.

“We echo the call of the Johannesburg High Court for the Magistrates Commission to publicize the findings of its investigation,” said Gagnon. “For justice to be done, the Independent Complaints Directorate, South Africa’s police oversight body, should also ensure full accountability for police officers found responsible for abuses and illegal conduct.”