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Man’s ears got him arrested at airport

The High Court in Johannesburg ordered the release on Friday of a Zimbabwean detained by immigration authorities because his ears didn’t look the same as in his passport photo, Lawyers for Human Rights said in a statement.

Petro Chatiza, who LHR said was an activist in the area of evictions and housing rights in Zimbabwe, was arrested on May 21 as he tried to board a flight at OR Tambo International Airport for Australia.

He had a Zimbabwean passport and a visa issued to him by the Australian High Commission in Harare as well as a three-month visa on entry to South Africa.

An airport official however had him arrested because he did not resemble his passport photo and was not carrying his Zimbabwean identity document. He was detained at the Kempton Park police station.

LHR argued that his possession of a valid passport with a valid visa to remain in South Africa for three months should have protected him legally from being declared an “illegal foreigner”, and there was no basis for his arrest or detention for deportation.

The state argued that the arresting immigration officer decided that Chatiza did not look like the photo in his passport as his ears stuck out in the photograph but not in person.

However, the immigration officer failed to take any further steps to verify his identity or to ask for an explanation of this discrepancy.

Only a week after his arrest, and the institution of legal proceedings, was he finally informed of the reasons for his arrest and given the opportunity to explain.

“According to Chatiza when his photo was taken in Zimbabwe the photographer told him that his ears must be visible, so the photographer stuffed pieces of paper behind his ears to make them more visible,” LHR said.

The Immigration Act only allows for a suspected “illegal foreigner” to be detained up to 48 hours for his documents to be verified. No immigration officials took steps to check his documents since his arrest, or even consulted with him at the police station.

“Home affairs have caused this man an abhorrent injustice. Our courts have consistently held that a person should not be detained for one second longer than authorities can justify the detention, but home affairs acts with no urgency or recognition of the rights of the people it detains”, said Gina Snyman, who represented him.

“It’s also appalling that our client had to borrow a smuggled telephone from a fellow detainee to get word out of his detention, and that we only knew of it via Amnesty International in London.

“It appears that the moratorium the minister [of home affairs] announced last April, on deporting Zimbabweans, has yet to be understood by immigration or police officials, because our client could not have been detained for purposes of deportation, unless he had been charged with, and convicted, of a criminal offence.”

Home Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said he was not aware of the case, but where there had been a mistake, they stood ready to apologise and would ensure it didn’t happen again.

He said various agencies worked together at the airport in security and safety, and it could not be said there had been bad will on the part of the officers to embarrass the man. They may have wanted to ensure quality service delivery and ensuring safety, Mamoepa argued.

“We will obviously have to investigate,” he said. – Sapa