IT looks like an attractive double-storey piece of real estate, but the Beau Vallon police station has an ugly reputation.

It serves the most popular beach on Mahe, largest of the Seychelles islands which, judging from comments on the travel site ‘Trip Advisor’, most visitors regard as some kind of paradise. Locals on the other hand take a more suspicious view.

When, in July 2009, 38 year old resident, Marvin Pierre, died in police custody at Beau Vallon, the public outcry was so insistent that President James Michel appointed an inquiry. And shortly after Judge Anthony Fernando completed his investigation the country’s police commissioner assured the public as well as the President that all the judge’s recommendations had been implemented.

These included appointing a new regional commander to the police station, an increase in staff of almost 50 percent at Beau Vallon as well as additional levels of supervision.

The incident also led to at least three court cases. In one two police officers were charged with Pierre’s death: the first was convicted of manslaughter, the other acquitted on all counts. In the second case Pierre’s family brought a damages claim against the police and were awarded R735 000 by the Supreme Court.

And in the third case, finalised about four months ago, the appeal court upheld the size of this award in the face of a government challenge.

It’s an intriguing decision because of the way the court characterised Pierre’s death at the hands of the police.

He had been arrested after a complaint that he was rowdy and inebriated in public and that he was threatening someone with a knife. The knife was confiscated and Pierre was then taken, handcuffed, to jail in the back of a police van. According to the policeman who was later convicted of being responsible for his death there were several points where Pierre had ‘fallen down’: it’s not clear whether the judge believed these details. But finally according to several witnesses, the first police officer, alone in a cell with Pierre, pushed him over with considerable force. The man tumbled backwards hitting his head on the floor. At this point the policeman left the cell and the detainee, fatally injured by the blow to his head, died at some stage in the night.

During the damages case the police admitted liability and the only dispute was over the amount that they should pay the family. Given that concession, said the appeal judges, the police could not contest any of the circumstances surrounding Pierre’s death during the appeal as they tried to do.

The court said the constitutional rights to dignity and life were so precious that they should not be lost ‘under circumstances which are inappropriate’. Any damages in a resulting case should reflect this ‘reality’.

‘In the end,’ said the court, ‘a reasonable person looking at the awarded sum should look at the sum in question and sigh with a sense of relief, content and satisfaction that justice has … been done.’

This was so in Pierre’s case and the particular circumstances of his death should also be remembered: ‘the deceased was arrested, assaulted and killed in a police station. In this regard, the (trial) judge was correct in asserting that the authority entrusted with the responsibility to oversee the security of a citizen turned against him …. ‘

‘It is on record that the killing caused revulsion throughout the Nation and necessitated a public enquiry upon the Order of His Excellency the President. It is also on record that this was the first time ever in the history of this Country that a killing of the above nature took place in police custody. In view of the foregoing, the learned judge was therefore correct in saying that a different consideration has to be given to this particular case when determining the quantum of damages in view of its special nature.’

It’s sobering to read of a people so angered over the negligent death of an inebriated citizen at the hands of the police that the president, and subsequently the police themselves, are forced to take immediate strong action to prevent it happening again.

Given the routine torture, assault and killings meted out by South African police how astounding to find a country that has not had a death in detention until now. Actually you could argue that it is this fact, rather than simply the beautiful beaches, that helps make Seychelles something of a paradise.

Gvmt of Seychelles v Rose