South African president criticises defence team for arguing Olympian should be spared jail because he is disabled.
South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, has made his first public comments on the trial of Oscar Pistorius. Photograph: Stringer/REUTERS
Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, has criticised Oscar Pistorius’s defence team for arguing the Paralympian should be spared prison because he is disabled and "has money".
Zuma’s first public comments about the most closely watched trial in the country’s post-apartheid history came as Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, awaits sentencing on Tuesday.
Pistorius’s lawyers called expert witnesses last week to testify that South African jails are ill-equipped for disabled people because, for example, the showers lack handrails. His lawyer warned that even in a hospital section the athlete would be exposed to diseases.
"I’m not sure why that comes into the picture," Zuma told the Guardian in Pretoria. "They were taking that too far in my view. There are people who are [physically] challenged in prisons; it’s not an issue here. That brings an unfortunate thing, an added thing, because a man has money."
The president added: "I thought that was an unfortunate debate. You don’t need it, because there are people who are disabled South who are in prison. Why it is raised as if he was the first one to be convicted? I thought they were pushing it too far."
Zuma, a former inmate on Robben Island during white minority rule, said he was saddened by the fall of Pistorius – "a hero in a very special way," – but felt the trial had shown the strength of the judicial system. "Very fair, very open. Not just to other people but even to South Africans, because usually South Africans are not informed. This time around, in their own houses they were informed as to how things happen."
He also backed judge Thokozile Masipa, whose decision to clear the double amputee athlete of murder was widely attacked. "The fact that the judge says he’s acquitted of murder, but on culpable homicide convicted, teaches people I think something in law, that you don’t just say because the life was lost it’s a murder," he said. "It could be murder, it could be an unintended kind of thing. I think people must have learned.
"The judge was under a bit of criticism, particularly because she’s a woman and women felt that she was not sympathetic to women, but she’s applying the law. So I’m just saying it was an interesting lesson for us."
Masipa will decide in the high court in Pretoria on Tuesday whether to meet the prosecution’s demand for 10 years’ imprisonment, grant the defense’s request for house arrest and community service, or seek a middle ground. Either side could then appeal and prolong the case yet further.
The sentencing hearing last week focused scrutiny on South Africa’s ability to cope with disabled people in jails notorious for overcrowding, tuberculosis, violent gangs and allegations of torture. Zach Modise, the acting national commissioner of the department of correctional services, told the court that it deals with 128 disabled prisoners on a daily basis, some of whom are blind, paraplegic or have had limbs partially or totally amputated.
"In the continent of Africa, there are no better facilities than those that we have in our country," he said, adding that he had also visited facilities in the UK and New York’s Sing Sing maximum security jail and found South Africa compared favourably. He gave assurances that Pistorius would be held in a hospital section to cater for his specific needs.
But watchdogs have raised concerns. Ruth Hopkins, an investigative journalist at the Johannesburg-based Wits Justice Project, visited the hospital section of Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru II prison two years ago, where the athlete is likely to be sent. "I did see a number of inmates cleaning but it did seem quite rundown and understaffed," she said.
"The general problem with the department of correctional services is that the legal framework is very robust and impressive but in practice it’s a whole different ballgame. However, I don’t think Oscar Pistorius will run into a lot of problems because he has a name and connections and network and most importantly money. Most of the cases we investigate are poor people who lack money or the ability to navigate the criminal justice system."
Golden Miles Bhudu, who spent five months in jail in 2009, recalled seeing an inmate without legs forced to help himself get meals and left in the sun all day because he was unable to pay fellow prisoners. "The conditions for disabled people leave a hell of a lot to be desired," said Bhudu, now a spokesman for the South African Prisoners’ Organization for Human Rights.
"It all depends how well connected outside and how rich you are. It will be difficult if it’s you or me and no one knows us. But Oscar Pistorius is a millionaire. He will have to pay a protection fee to prisoners and some corrupt correctional officers to look after him. Some officers will run to him to offer care and protection."
Sister Amiee and brother Oscar PistoriusMeanwhile, on the eve of sentencing, Pistorius’s siblings have spoken publicly about their anguish and unwavering support for the athlete. His sister, Aimee, recalled the moment that she learned 29-year-old Steenkamp had been shot. "When I first heard what had happened obviously my initial reaction was just shock and devastation and extreme heartache," she told ITV News. "My first thoughts were that knowing my brother, … the kind of person he is … he must have thought it was an intruder, before I knew the facts."
She added: "I do not doubt my brother at all. I have the privileged position of knowing my brother – his strengths, his faults as you do when you’re as close as we are. And yet knowing those things, I know that people who think maliciously are so far from the truth."
The family have been seen shaking their heads in court while listening to prosecutor Gerrie Nel. Pistorius’s brother, Carl, said: "I can’t relate to the Oscar that’s been portrayed by the prosecution. Oscar growing up, up until now, is the same person. He’s bold, he’s brave, he’s got courage, he’s got charisma, he’s exciting and fun, thoughtful and intelligent, and has been the perfect fit as a middle child between us three siblings.
"I believe Oscar without a reservation. There’s not an inkling of reservation as to what I believe Oscar says … We cannot speculate ahead of final sentencing but what I do know for certain, regardless of the outcome, the three of us will stand together and continue to stand together."