1 December 2021
In January 2020, Athlone police Sergeant Giovanni Gabriels led a team of constables in a joint operation with the army. At the time, he already had several watchdog findings for assault against him, and he was on a final written warning. Days after the operation, one of the men arrested, 36-year-old Adam Isaacs, died in hospital from blunt force trauma. Witnesses link Gabriels to the assault.
Why was Gabriels still on duty, and why does he remain so today? The answer lies in the failure of his boss, Athlone station commander Colonel Mark Adonis, to take steps against him. This problem is systemic, as a circular from the police head office recently acknowledged. The circular warned commanders throughout the country against such “inaction”, noting that they themselves would be guilty of misconduct.
Yet the South African Police Service (SAPS) appears to have no way to deal with commanders who continue to protect brutal cops.
Seven days after Adam Isaacs was admitted at Groote Schuur Hospital, on a Sunday, he suddenly seemed to be getting better. After being resuscitated by hospital staff, undergoing three surgeries and spending nearly a week in the Intensive Care Unit, his condition improved. Doctors took him off a ventilator and put him on facemask oxygen. He responded well.
Adam opened his eyes, looked up and mouthed the words “mammie ek is lief vir jou”. Washila Isaacs, his mother, was there to greet him. She had spent days at the hospital, sitting beside his bed during visiting hours and waiting outside the rest of the time. All the time, she says, she prayed for Allah to spare him.
During the three nights when he was closest to death, Zubair Slamang, a young neighbour and a scholar of the Quran, had also held vigil at his bedside. He recited the Surah Yasin — the heart of the Quran — a powerful chapter recommended to ease the passing of a dying man.
“So glory be to Him in whose Hand lies control over all things. It is to Him that you will all be brought back.”
Adam Isaacs (photo supplied)
The image of Adam on the first night is still with Zubair today. He had known Adam as a friend of his sister, a strong man standing just under six foot. But there he lay broken, on a ventilator, his limbs swollen.
When Adam arrived at Groote Schuur under police guard in the late afternoon of 27 January 2020, he was convulsing and vomiting. Muscle tissue was breaking down around his bones, releasing toxins into his bloodstream — a condition known as “crush syndrome”. His kidneys could not cope and they failed. His intestines were badly damaged. Adam underwent an emergency operation and then needed regular dialysis to stay alive.
That Sunday, Washila took her son’s words as a good omen. But the same day Adam started to slide again. On 6 February, they operated on him for the last time. He died at 10:45 pm. A pathologist later concluded that his death was caused by “blunt force trauma injuries and the consequences thereof”.
This is what is known from police records, released to the Isaacs family’s lawyer, about the night that Adam was arrested. At 6pm on 26 January 2020, Sergeant Giovanni Gabriels came on duty at Athlone police station and took command of eight constables. The officers booked out two vehicles. Between the hours of midnight and 3:30am, Athlone police arrested at least nine people on charges ranging from possession of tik, to dealing in drugs, to the unlawful possession of firearms. Though it is unclear whether all these people were arrested by Gabriels’ team, station records show that Adam Isaacs definitely was. The time noted was midnight.
The officers booked Adam into custody at Athlone police station at about 8am the next morning. The police station’s occurrence book noted that Adam had “suffered injuries on his body”. Gabriels signed him out to hospital soon afterwards.
When the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), registered Adam’s death for investigation, the summary captured on its case management system noted that a cell guard at Athlone police station had refused to accept Adam from the police officers who were trying to book him in, because he was injured. If so, Adam had sustained his injuries before arriving at the cells.
Police records leave many questions unanswered. Where did the vehicles booked out by Gabriels and his team go during the night? The vehicle records provided by SAPS to the Isaacs’ family lawyer were for the wrong date. What was the purpose of the joint operation between SAPS and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in Athlone on the night of 26 January 2020? Witnesses say that the operation formed part of the army’s deployment on the Cape Flats. Yet, police records made no mention of this and the SANDF did not respond to Viewfinder’s queries.
A recent check of the government’s Persal system by a Viewfinder source confirmed that the officer implicated by eyewitnesses in the assault on Adam Isaacs has faced no consequences, in spite of having been on a final warning for assault. Eight months after Adam’ death, SAPS transferred Sergeant Gabriels to the west coast hamlet of Lamberts Bay where he remains in service today. In a statement accompanying one of his prior assault cases, Gabriels wrote that he had previously requested a transfer to another rural precinct. So, the transfer is unlikely to have been a punishment.
When Adam’s death was registered by the police, Athlone’s station commander Colonel Mark Adonis had to alert IPID. This he did. Yet, he also had to order a departmental investigation. He was empowered to suspend Gabriels, as a precaution. Instead, Adonis washed his hands of the case. During a recent phone call he told Viewfinder that he was waiting for a report from IPID before he would act. This is what police station commanders in South Africa almost always do, no matter how severe the crimes allegedly committed by their staff or on their watch. The consequence is that officers implicated in such crimes as torture, rape and murder remain on duty.
Following successive Viewfinder exposés on the failure of police discipline management, SAPS management issued a circular in October 2021. The circular warned commanders that they were duty-bound to initiate departmental investigations on becoming aware of misconduct allegations against their staff, regardless of other investigations, such as those conducted by IPID. Commanders who failed to act were themselves guilty of misconduct, the circular warned. It also highlighted the issue of “excessively lenient sanctions” for officers against whom serious charges were proven.
Yet, as Adonis’ response over the phone and a recent Viewfinder investigation of a death in custody in Upington suggests, station commanders have still not heeded these warnings. In a query to Lieutenant General Lineo Ntshiea, the police’s divisional commander for human resource management, who was cited as the point person for the October circular, Viewfinder pointed this out and asked what plans SAPS had for enforcing the circular. She did not respond.
Where there is a hole in the record, eyewitnesses interviewed by Viewfinder have volunteered to fill in some of the blanks about what happened to Adam Isaacs between about 10pm on 26 January 2020 and daybreak on 27 January.
Ashia Isaacs, Adam’s younger sister, says that she was arrested on the same night, and that she witnessed much of the alleged assault on her brother. When first interviewed at her family home in Belgravia, about a year after Adam’s death, she pointed out a brown splatter on an unpainted cement wall in the living quarters at the back of the house. This is where it started, she said, that was Adam’s blood. She had kept the wall unwashed and unpainted in the hope that the blood stain might be of use to investigators some day.
It was at around 10pm on 26 January 2020 when police and soldiers raided the house, she said, not midnight as police records indicated. Adam was already in police custody when they stormed the house, she said, and they brought him inside with them. The soldiers kept asking her to reveal where her brother kept the guns and drugs, while beating him up in front of her.
Gabriels was present and was “calling the shots”, Ashia told staff of The Safety Lab who interviewed her on 4 February, while Adam was still fighting for his life in hospital. At one point during the evening a soldier lifted a black bin bag, she recalled, and told Adam that it was the “body bag for his corpse”.
She was hit, she said, with a baseball bat. The soldiers stopped hitting her when she lied that she was pregnant. For Adam, the severity of the beating apparently just kept escalating as they were driven to various locations in and around Athlone.
For certain times, when Adam was not in his sister’s direct line of sight, Viewfinder located witnesses who also said they saw police and soldiers beating and torturing him.
On 28 January, the day after Adam was taken to hospital, 45-year-old Shamiel Gamieldien laid a complaint at Mowbray police station. He said that in the early hours of the previous morning, Gabriels, another police officer and a soldier had broken down the door at his sister’s house, arrested him and then broken his arm.
“They told me to lay down … Gabriels hit me with a baseball bat (on) my arm, which is now broken,” he wrote in his statement to Mowbray police.
“The other person that was assaulted by this policeman is lying at Groote Schuur hospital.” It is not clear whether “this policeman” refers to Gabriels or the other constable whom Gamieldien accused of assault, but the victim mentioned here is Adam Isaacs.
Viewfinder interviewed Gamieldien at the house where he had been arrested. After his arrest, the police and army operation moved on with him, Adam and others to Die Vlei informal settlement where more people were taken into custody and interrogated, he said. Gamieldien recalled watching Adam through the windscreen of an army truck from where he sat, confined, behind the driver’s seat. Adam was lying in the street.
“They started hitting Adam, and they started kicking him. God, he was lying on the ground. (One of them) had a brick and I heard how he threw it ‘gah!’ against Adam’s back. They had an iron hammer with which they beat him. They let another youngster come, one of our own people, to beat Adam with a baseball bat,” he said.
“And all the while they were coming back to me saying ‘you’re next, you’re next’. And, that is when I said to myself ‘here you are going to die’. They probably beat Adam like that for an hour non-stop.”
When given an opening by a sympathetic soldier, Gamieldien said, he cradled his broken arm and ran for his life.
IPID registered Gamieldien’s assault case against the police, though it did not respond to Viewfinder’s request for an update.
The final site of the operation that morning appears to have been a house in Belgravia, Athlone. Ashia Isaacs said she was kept in a vehicle as her brother was taken out of sight into the yard behind a metal gate. Viewfinder visited this location and spoke to half a dozen people — mostly residents in the house and its backyard structures — who said they witnessed police and soldiers torture Adam there, too. None of them were willing to be named, for fear of reprisal. What follows is their collective account.
Gabriels was present, they said. He seemed to be in command. Adam had been stripped to his underwear and a dirty T-shirt. There were two other young men from Die Vlei in custody alongside Adam. These men were imploring Adam to “speak,” to reveal the location of firearms which they swore could be found at the property. Adam protested, saying that he was unable to “speak” because he did not know where these supposed guns were.
A soldier was seen repeatedly stomping on Isaacs’s abdomen with his full weight. Adam wet himself. The officers and soldiers mocked him. Adam begged the family who lived at the property to help him but, with soldiers’ guns trained on them, they could do nothing. At some point during the beating Adam lost consciousness, the witnesses said. Gabriels reportedly kicked Adam in the head in an attempt to wake him up. The police asked the residents for water, which was poured over Adam. He came to.
A soldier who had participated in the beating wanted to “call it off”, saying that they were getting nothing from Adam.
“Gabriels said ‘give me fifteen minutes more, I will get something out of him,’” one of these witnesses told the Isaacs family’s lawyer. Another witness interviewed by Viewfinder confirmed that Gabriels had said something of the sort. This witness described how one police officer then took a blue plastic bag, sprayed pepper spray into it, and put it over Adam’s head. This torture technique - intended to suffocate a suspect during interrogation - is sometimes used by police officers in South Africa. It has its origins during apartheid, and is commonly referred to as “tubing”.
“He (Gabriels) was not happy. He came closer, and he took the bag like this and he sprayed his whole can almost emptying into that bag. I have nothing against the man. That is what I saw. Gabriels sprayed all that pepper spray into the bag and he pulled it over the guy’s head… and then he (Adam) was out,” said the witness.
“They told him ‘he was going to meet his God,’” interjected another witness at this stage in the interview.
Earlier this year DA member Parliament Andrew Whitfield submitted a question to Police Minister Bheki Cele. Whitfield asked for a breakdown of the number of police officers implicated in violent crimes since the 2012-13 financial year, and how many of those had been placed on precautionary suspension as a result.
The data that Cele sent with his response named and provided the Persal numbers of more than 10,000 police officers against whom IPID had recommended disciplinary steps be taken on charges ranging from assault, torture, rape and unlawful killings. Only 50 of these officers were suspended by the police, pending the outcome of their cases.
Most of the officers named featured only once. But a few dozen officers featured more regularly. Often, these apparent repeat offenders stayed on duty due to deliberate decisions by their bosses not to enforce IPID’s recommendation to discipline them, or because they received lenient sanctions.
For instance, between 2016 and 2017, an officer from Dalasile SAPS in the rural Eastern Cape was implicated three times in assaulting people in police custody. In 2019, he was called into a departmental hearing for raping a woman. He was spared disciplinary action in one assault case, he got a warning for another, and was suspended for two months without pay for the rape. Other records at Viewfinder’s disposal suggest that the third assault went nowhere.
Between 2014 and 2016, a Bloemfontein constable was accused in seven assault cases, including one where he apparently beat two men up after they failed to pay a bribe. In all these cases IPID recommended that the suspect be disciplined. The constable was eventually given a “warning” in 2017, but in at least three of the other cases his commander decided against disciplining him.
Between 2016 and 2018, a constable from Wellington in the Western Cape was accused of six assaults, including one where the complainant claimed to have been beaten with a “tree branch” and a “chair”. In each of these cases IPID recommended that SAPS discipline the constable. In each of these cases police management decided against doing so, recording every time that it had “insufficient evidence” to charge the constable.
Then, in the database, there was Athlone police sergeant Giovanni Gabriels. Between January 2017 and April 2019, Gabriels was accused and investigated by IPID in six assault cases. In all six cases, IPID recommended that his commander discipline him. In the first of these cases, SAPS acquitted Gabriels in a disciplinary hearing. In the next three, his supervisor Lieutenant Colonel Clive Nicholas decided that disciplinary steps should not be taken.
In the fifth case, from February 2019, Gabriels was accused of assaulting and tasering a man. In the sixth case, from just a few weeks later, Gabriels was again accused of using a taser during an assault which left his 53-year-old victim bleeding profusely from a gash on his nose. In both cases he was found guilty of misconduct. He was given a written warning and then a final written warning. Police discipline regulations prescribe that such warnings be struck off an officer’s personnel file after six months, returning them to a clean sheet. But Gabriels’ final warning was still in effect on the night that Adam Isaacs was arrested.
“I believe the taser helped us,” Gabriels said in his defence in a statement accompanying his last disciplinary conviction, though he had admitted guilt.
The statement provided a rare insight into the rationale of a police officer accused in multiple cases of brutality. Police officers are gagged from speaking to the media, and when a GroundUp journalist tried to speak to Gabriels outside court, where he was in the dock for one of his assault cases, he was not willing to go on the record with an interview.
In his statement, however, Gabriels complained about the dangers and stresses of the job in a gang-ridden Cape Flats neighbourhood.
Undoubtedly, many people who are assaulted or killed by police officers in South Africa are criminal suspects. Adam Isaacs spent years in jail for drug dealing, his family has confirmed, and Viewfinder understands that police suspected him of having re-entered the business when they sought him out for arrest on 26 January 2020. Shamiel Gamieldien, the man who alleged Gabriels broke his arm, admitted that he had a history as a gangster, and had also “hurt” people in his life.
“Many police members have died due to the lack of support and equipment from the police. The police is really a massive failure. It is a joke. Certain areas we can’t even police where gangsters are in control and backed up by the community,” Gabriels wrote in his statement.
“I do not beat people. I defend myself.”
Three of the complainants in the cases above, people who say that they were assaulted by Gabriels in the months before Adam’s death, would disagree. Viewfinder interviewed each of them at their homes in and around Athlone.
On the afternoon of 2 November 2017, 18-year-old Nikkita Peters left home to walk to her friend’s house. She came across Gabriels and a crew from Athlone SAPS beating up her cousin in Alicedale Park in Athlone, she told Viewfinder.
“Gabriels kicked him. His nose was bleeding. I went closer. I put my phone on video, and started making a video of them… Then Gabriels came after me. He kicked my feet from under me and I fell flat on my stomach and then he kicked me on my stomach two or three times,” she said during a recent interview. One of Gabriels’ colleagues confiscated her phone and deleted the video, she added. She was arrested.
Later in the cells, Peters said, she found that she was bleeding from her private parts and that there was blood in her urine. An examination at Hanover Park Community Health Clinic a day later noted that Peters was complaining of back and abdominal pain and had a tingling sensation on the right side of her body.
A few months later, 60-year-old Veronica Franciscus was getting ready for a shift as a nurse at Groote Schuur Hospital. She heard a commotion in the garage, and walked in on Gabriels strangling her son, she says. As the scuffle broke up and Gabriels called for backup, Franciscus went to her room and phoned her sister for help.
Gabriels came in as she put down the receiver, she said, and hit her on her left eye with his open palm and “choked” her. He arrested her. She asked if she could put on her shoes but he refused, Franciscus wrote in a diary entry recalling the alleged assault, he “threw me in the van like a bag of potatoes”.
Franciscus was arrested and charged with assault, intimidation and resisting arrest. She missed her shift at the hospital. When she went for a medical examination the next day, the doctor concurred that she had been hit and choked. Her eye was swollen and there were abrasions on her neck.
In April the following year, 53-year-old Nazeem Hardien says he flagged down a police van to come deal with a group of young men who were smoking drugs and gambling in broad daylight outside his block in Kewtown, Athlone. Hardien is a fisherman and snoek salesman, who owns a bakkie. When Gabriels got out at the scene, Hardien says, he wanted to search Hardien’s bakkie. Perplexed, Hardien demanded a search warrant, at which point, he said, Gabriels pistol-whipped him in the face and tasered him twice. Gabriels and his colleagues hustled Hardien into the police van, and he spent a couple of days in the holding cells at Athlone SAPS before he was released without charge.
A video was taken of the alleged assault by a bystander, and published in the Daily Voice. A screengrab from the video shows Hardien bleeding from a gash on his nose. Viewfinder was not able to obtain the video itself. A medical examination confirmed that Hardien had been tasered (twice) and had sustained abrasions to his nose and neck.
A screengrab from the video of Sergeant Giovanni Gabriels’ alleged assault on Nazeem Hardien. Image supplied
Gabriels’ alleged assaults on Peters, Franciscus, her son Kyle, and on Hardien were all registered for investigation with IPID. Between September 2018 and November 2019, IPID submitted four recommendations to Athlone police management that it discipline Gabriels. In Peters’ case, the office of Athlone station commander Colonel Adonis recommended that disciplinary steps not be taken. The same happened in Franciscus and her son’s cases. This meant that Adonis’s office overrode the police watchdog’s findings of prima facie wrongdoing against Gabriels. This is easy for police commanders to do, as Viewfinder investigations exposed this year.
In issuing Gabriels with a warning for Hardien’s assault, his supervisor concurred that he was defending himself and reprimanded him purely for having used a taser in doing so.
Criminal prosecutors have been less forgiving. In both Peters’s and Hardien’s cases, prosecutors decided there was sufficient evidence to charge Gabriels with “assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm”. These cases have been running on the court rolls at Athlone and Wynberg magistrates courts ever since. Gabriels has pleaded not guilty, and is due again in Athlone court on 10 December in the Peters assault case.
Standing by Nikkita Peters’s side at every appearance has been her mother, Geraldine.
“If we miss a date, then obviously they are going to say ‘okay, no it is fine: case closed’. That is what I don’t want, because it did happen and I want justice to be served,” said Geraldine Peters during a recent interview.
“They can’t get away with murder. It is not only Nikkita, there are a lot of people that Gabriels assaulted. Death was involved. Why can’t they discipline him? What is the system going to do about him?”
Viewfinder submitted queries to Athlone station commander Mark Adonis via Western Cape police spokesperson Colonel Andre Traut. We asked for an explanation of the decisions not to discipline Gabriels for the alleged assaults on Franciscus, her son and Nikkita Peters - especially as prosecutors deemed the Peters case to be strong enough to pursue a criminal conviction in court under a much higher burden of proof. Viewfinder also asked what, if any, was Athlone SAPS’s response to Adam Isaacs’s death and allegations that Gabriels and some of his colleagues participated in the assault which appears to have caused it. These queries went unanswered.
IPID told the Isaacs family lawyer in February, more than a year after the assault on Adam, that crime scene photos, witness statements and statements from the police officers and soldiers who were deployed to Athlone on the night of his arrest were still outstanding from the docket. In September, IPID reported to Viewfinder that it had interviewed Gabriels and one of his colleagues, but it had still not interviewed the soldiers who had backed them up. IPID did not respond to more recent queries, asking specifically for a response to the impression that the Isaacs’ case had been gathering dust at their office.
Last week, Viewfinder submitted seperate queries to the SANDF and the Military Ombudsman. Neither responded.
In January, it will be two years since Adam Isaacs was arrested and later dragged out of his mother’s home, never to return.
Ashia has tiled over the bloodstains in the back room. Like others who have lost loved ones similarly, or who have been tortured, raped or maimed by police officers in South Africa, she and Washila have virtually given up hope for justice, or closure.