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South Africa - Hugh's Detention

26-06-2001

Torture - Testimony

      

    

 "Conditions for political prisoners at the beginning were very, very harsh"  

 

By Carrington Nelson, 30.04.99, for People on War

As a young, white journalist in South Africa in the 1960's, Hugh Lewin protested the laws of Apartheid by blowing up electrical pylons - an act of sabotage he now describes as " very amateurish. "

In consequence, Lewin was arrested and detained for 90 days, beaten and tortured. " The security police could do anything they wanted with the detainees, " he remembers. " They just beat the hell out of us. "

" South Africa is very good with acronyms, but international humanitarian law does not figure in the South African list of acronyms. It has never really come through. "

After his initial detention, Lewin was sentenced to prison for seven years - a term so brief in those tumultuous days it was considered " a parking ticket. " " Conditions for political prisoners at the beginning were very, very harsh, " he remembers. " In South African terms we were regarded as the kaffirs of the prison society. " The word is a derogatory term for blacks.

Prisoners in Lewin's rank were allowed one letter of 500 words and one visit of half an hour every six months. Throughout his entire internment, Lewin, a journalist, was denied newspapers or any other outside news.

Though prison conditions were appalling, he says, " it was a very useful experience to realise what it was like to be black in an Apartheid society. "

In 1965, a fellow prisoner published a series of articles in The Rand Daily Mail, describing prison conditions. Lewin credits that exposé with breaking open the system and bringing about instant improvements, including the first visit by a delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross. " His greatest achievement was to get some oranges delivered for Christmas, " Lewin recalls of the delegate.

After his release, Lewin, like many others, left South Africa. He remained in exile for 21 years, returning in 1992 to the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, of which he is now the director. He also served two years on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and credits the commission's exposure of Apartheid's atrocities with bringing the beginnings of peace to South Africa. Moreover, Lewin adds, " The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has put human rights on the agenda in a way it was never before. "

People on War is a worldwide project that intends to increase awareness around the world of the rules that already exist for people's protection in wartime and to encourage discussion of humanitarian law in the context of modern-day conflict. It has been designed to involve those who have experience of war.