Firearms Amnesty Drive: Police Briefing; Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill: Home Affairs Department briefing

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02 November 2009
Chairperson: Ms L Chikunga (ANC) & Mr G Schneemann (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed by the Secretary of Police, Ms Jenny Irish-Qhobosheane, on the call for a new firearms amnesty drive to allow for those people who had failed to meet the firearms licence application deadline. The focus of the proposed amnesty would be individuals who had knowledge of weapons, including producers with redundant stock and private individuals. The delegation cited the success of the 2005 amnesty process, in which more than 98,000 firearms were recovered. No explosives would be covered, and the proposed amnesty would focus solely on handing in of illegally-held weapons. Those handing in the weapons would be given the choice of surrendering the firearms, or to apply to become the registered and legal owners. No compensation would be paid for weapons handed in. The only amnesty for crimes would be limited to amnesty for illegal possession of unregistered firearms. Members were generally supportive of the idea but expressed concerns on whether there would be administrative backlogs and blockages. Several Members indicated that they were not in favour of anonymous handing in of firearms, since it was possible that someone could commit a crime with a particular weapon then hand it in, and felt that the answers given did not address the issues. They proposed a minimum number of questions to be asked. The Secretariat agreed that, given the limited target, there should not be a problem in removing the anonymity clause, and that it wished to strike a balance between getting encouraging people to come forward with their firearms, and create an auditable process. Members also questioned how it would be ensured that the firearms did not go missing after being handed in. Members agreed to support the proposal, as amended by the removal of the requirement for anonymity.

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) briefed the Committee on the links that it was proposed be established between the databases of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the DHA, in pursuance of the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill. The Department outlined how its systems worked, and noted that there would be implications in terms of cost, turnaround times and volumes. It was proposed that the two departments would have a Memorandum of Understanding to regulate the issues.  Members asked what security systems the DHA had in place, queried the legality of SAPS using a civilian database, and asked why there were so many fingerprints compared to photographs. They also questioned whether the use of thumbprints only from the DHA system was useful, how children were defined, noted that the Committee would require timelines for synchronising the different ID systems, and questioned the numbers of documented and undocumented foreigners in the system, as also how foreigners had obtained local ID books, and cautioned that security would need to be taken extremely seriously as there would be high stakes on the identification of fingerprints by crime syndicates. The practicalities of the process were outlined.

Meeting report

Proposed Firearms Amnesty: Police Secretariat presentation
Ms Jenny Irish-Qhobosheane, Secretary of Police, Ministry of Police, stated that Section 139 of the Firearms Control Act (FCA) of 2000 made provision for the declaration of a firearms amnesty. The focus of the proposed amnesty would be targeting individuals who had knowledge of weapons, including producers with redundant stock, and private individuals. During the 2005 firearms amnesty process, more than 98 000 firearms were recovered, so the idea of having a firearms amnesty was well warranted. No explosives were to be covered by the amnesty, and it would focus solely on the handing-in of illegal weapons. The amnesty would allow for those who had missed the registration deadline to use this avenue to become legal owners, or simply to dispose of their unwanted firearms, which would aid in a bid not to criminalise previous legal firearms owners who had missed registration deadlines. In the case of those who wished to retain their firearms, the licensing process would still need to be followed along the usual lines. There would be no compensation paid out for individuals who simply surrendered their firearms. Amnesty for crimes would not be part of the process, other than the limited amnesty for the possession of unregistered firearms. Firearms were to be handed in at local police stations and would be destroyed within six months of the amnesty drive.

Ms D Kohler-Barnard (DA) asked for a figure as to how many legal firearms were rendered illegal after the death of the owner, when they were passed on to his or her heir. She asked whether it was likely that there would be the same administration backlog issues as had arisen with the licensing of firearms, as the FCA was something of a failure in terms of licensing processes.

Ms Irish-Qhobosheane replied that the Police Secretariat was looking into administration blockages and how these could be remedied.

Mr Jaco Bothma, Director: Firearms Control, South African Police Services, replied that the figure referred to by Ms Kohler-Barnard was approximately 200 000 people, and that it was a lengthy process which had in fact been a predicator of the amnesty drive. There was a need to open a door for these people who had failed to register inherited firearms, in order that the South African Police Service (SAPS) could regain control over the situation. These individuals could still apply for a licence, after handing in the firearms, if they wished to keep them.

Mr M George (COPE) stated that this was not the first amnesty and asked whether previous amnesties had resulted in a significant reduction of the number of arms in circulation in the country.

Ms Irish-Qhobosheane replied that the amnesty in 2005, excluding seized weapons, had resulted in 45 000 legal and 35 000 illegal firearms being handed in, and as such the amnesty was judged to be a success.

Ms A van Wyk (ANC) acknowledged the proven efficacy of former amnesties, but added that she was very concerned about the clause that allowed for the anonymous handing in of firearms. She asked what there was to stop someone from committing a crime, and subsequently handing in the firearm anonymously to a police station, without fear of being investigated.

Mr V Ndlovu (IFP) stated that he was worried that there would be blockages, and these must be averted.  He agreed with Ms van Wyk that there should not be allowance made for the anonymous handing in of firearms.

Mr Bothma replied that the amnesty was only in respect of those firearms that were currently illegally held by people. IBIS testing would occur on all firearms received. There would be no amnesty for other crimes committed with these firearms.

Ms L Chikunga, ANC) stated that there was surely a relationship between a firearms and the crime committed, and she queried how the two could be separated.

Ms D Schafer (DA) asked how the SAPS intended to assess whether they thought someone was a criminal or not when handing in a firearm. She said there was no clarity on this point.

Ms Kohler-Barnard asked whether there was ever any record of a criminal handing in a firearm. She thought it was unlikely that this had occurred.

Mr George asked how the anonymity process would work.

Mr G Schneemann (ANC) asked how a police official was supposed to suspect or trust someone who had just walked into the station.

Ms Irish-Qhobosheane replied that the Secretariat was not talking about profiling. All stations did have a list of suspects.

Ms Van Wyk stated that there was clearly a need for amnesty. However, the anonymity clause was an issue of great concern. The answers being provided did not clarify the matter at all. She asked whether all firearms were going to be IBIS tested, and asked why the SAPS would not want to have the ability to actually investigate firearms.

Rev K Meshoe (ACDP) asked why the amnesty should be done anonymously if people would not be prosecuted. He instead proposed that minimum questions should include asking people where, why and how they came into possession of the firearm.

Ms Irish-Qhobosheane conceded that SAPS had not actually had such a situation in the past, where a suspect handed in a weapon used in a crime. She added that the Secretariat and SAPS would not have a problem with taking out the anonymity clause, but that if there was too much detail being requested, there was the possibility that many potential people who might otherwise hand in their firearm would be put off doing so.

Mr Bothma said that during the previous amnesty process, people handing in weapons were required to fill in forms, and that was where the administrative process became cumbersome. He added that the objective was to get in firearms that would otherwise be on the streets.

Mr Tertius Geldenhuys, Assistant Commissioner, SAPS, stated that it was important to consider whether the priority was to get in the arms, so that they were off the street. If this was so, then anonymity was an important factor in achieving this goal.

Ms Irish-Qhobosheane added that SAPS’s target was law-abiding citizens who had missed the cut-off dates. This being so, there should not be a problem with removing the anonymity clause.

Mr M Nonkonyana (ANC) stated that there were two issues at play, firstly those who wished to surrender unlicensed firearms and secondly, those who wished to acquire legal status. He asked whether there was no way to detect whether a crime had been committed with the firearms handed in.

Ms Van Wyk stated that the Committee understood that the person would only get amnesty for illegal possession of a firearm, but believed that the anonymous handing in would not facilitate crime detection.

Ms Schafer agreed with Ms Van Wyk.

Ms Kohler-Barnard added that if SAPS had details, then they could back-track the history of the firearm, especially if it was a lost or stolen SAPS-issued firearm. For this reason, she thought that the anonymity provision must be removed.

Mr Ndlovu asked how SAPS would trace a firearm in the case of an anonymous hand in.

Rev Meshoe proposed formally that a minimum amount of information be taken and that the anonymity clause be removed. The key would be to ensure people that they would not be prosecuted unless they committed a crime.

Mr G Lekgetho (ANC) asked how the anonymity process worked, in terms of amnesties in other countries.

The Chairperson stated that information given in a previous crime statistics briefing indicated that a criminal would usually have used a firearm with a previous record. She wanted to achieve a balance between getting firearms off the street, and not destroying evidence. She asked why SAPS could not conduct this amnesty like the previous one.

Ms Irish-Qhobosheane reiterated that SAPS would not be averse to removing the anonymity clause, but added that there was a need to revert to simplifying the process for the SAPS, in order to make sure that the process could be audited, for control purposes. She added that SAPS would like a strong monitoring process for the amnesty.

The Chairperson stated that the loss of drugs from evidence was worrying and that she was concerned to avoid the situation where firearms could also go missing.

Rev Meshoe asked what measures the SAPS had in place to ensure that firearms handed in did not go missing.

Mr Bothma replied that firearms handed in would be put in SAP-13, catalogued in the database, and tracked. He added that the amnesty would be run like an operation, with 24 hour station notification to the provinces and that there would be a total system operational register system.

Ms Irish-Qhobosheane replied that there would be snap-audits during the process.

The Chairperson proposed moving for the adoption of the report calling for support for the firearms amnesty, with the amendment that the clause on anonymity should be removed.

Members seconded the motion and adopted the Report.

Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill (the Bill): Presentation by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA)
Mr Vusi Mkhize, Deputy Director General: Civic Services, DHA, stated that the presentation by the Department of Home Affairs would address the proposals around verification of fingerprints and identity in the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill (the Bill). The DHA had played a part in the compilation of the Bill and as such DHA was familiar with the content. He tabled and went through a presentation on the Bill. The Department of Home Affairs’ National Identification System (HANIS) background and objectives were provided. He stated that up to now, there were 33 million sets of fingerprints registered, and 12 million photographs. The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) design and operation was outlined, and the possibilities that were open in terms of integration with SAPS systems was discussed. The implications of the changes would be cost, volume implication, and turn-around times for processing and extended support and maintenance for HANIS. It was believed that there was a possibility of integration with the SAPS' systems, as there was a huge database and this could make positive contributions to enlarging the SAPS’s capability in terms of fingerprint recognition.

Mr S Mmakau, Acting Deputy Director General, Information Services, DHA, added that in order for DHA to determine how long the integration would take, it would require SAPS to provide information on exactly what was required and expected. This would determine timeframes and cost. The process would require DHA and SAPS’s IT departments’ collaboration.

Ms Schafer asked what security systems DHA had in place to track who was accessing the database and whether an ID number was necessary to verify fingerprints.

Mr Mmakau replied that that DHA had a biometric access control mechanism that requested a password and a fingerprint, so that it could clearly track who was using the system. In addition, DHA would be adding a smartcard component.

Mr Mkhize replied that there were two kinds of verification, one-to-one and one-to-many. One-to-many verification was still useable for fingerprints without an ID number but would take up to 24 hours for verification.

Ms Van Wyk asked if there was any discussion with the SAPS and whether DHA would enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with SAPS. This was necessary in order to ensure that each department knew what was expected from them, and so that neither department became frustrated.

Mr Mkhize replied that the MOU option was welcomed and that the DHA would enter into MOUs with every institution involved with the process.

Ms Kohler-Barnard expressed concern over the legality of SAPS using a civilian database. She added that in many countries there was an independent advisor who held the custodianship of similar databases. She asked why there were so few photographs in relation to fingerprints, and asked what use thumbprints from HANIS were to the SAPS, who needed full fingerprints.
Mr Theo Hercules, State Law Advisor, Office of the Chief State Law Advisor, replied that Chapter 5(a) of the Bill dealt with use and storage of fingerprints and that there was a subsection dealing with a specific use related to criminal investigation and prosecution. Sanctions were provided for in the case of abuse of the system, and this allowed for the Minister of Police to issue national instructions for use of the database.

Rev Meshoe asked why AFIS was even needed if all of the data was also contained in HANIS. He also asked why there was a discrepancy between the number of fingerprints and photographs on the database.

Mr Mkhize replied that there was a need for protocols to be established that would ensure legal compliance. He added that when DHA had been automating the database there were many old photographs which were useless from an identification perspective, and so had not been included. Although facial features changed, fingerprints remained static. AFIS was part of HANIS. The Department was looking at these as part of the same system and not redundant.

Mr Ndlovu asked how the DHA defined children.

Mr Mkhize replied that children were only documented upon turning 16, as this was when they were required to get an Identification Document.

Mr Ndlovu also said that the Committee would need timeframes for synchronisation between the Department of Transport (DoT), DHA and SAPS.

Ms Kohler-Barnard presumed that the rest of the fingerprints were on the SAPS AFIS database. She asked where the DHA was getting the rest of the fingerprints from as it appeared DHA only used thumbprints.

Mr Mkhize replied that that was the one-to-many utilisation of HANIS and that as people continued to renew their IDs, this information would be updated.

Mr Lekgetho asked who the people were without IDs, who would require a 24 hour, one to many search. He also requested an indication of the figures of documented and undocumented foreigners.

Mr Mkhize replied that DHA was still trying to make sure that everyone in the country had an ID, but that there were still people who did not possess one. He added that refugees and contract workers needed to be documented, and that a lot of them came forward after the xenophobia attacks. Approximately 2.5 million documented foreigners were in the system, but it was not possible to gauge how many undocumented foreigners there were in the country.

Ms Kohler-Barnard stated that with reference to citizen rights, there was no system internationally that was one hundred percent secure, and that there was also the issue of human error. She added that this meant that there needed to be recourse for citizens who had been wrongly implicated in crimes. As the DHA had security measures in place, the role of SAPS in these measures was questioned.

Mr Mkhize agreed that no system was absolutely secure, and that in the case of an incorrect identification the manual records still existed and could be referred to.

Mr Hercules added that protection was  afforded for citizens in the Bill, and that any use of fingerprint data contrary to the prescripts of the Bill would be regarded as an offence.

Mr Mmakau agreed that there was no absolutely secure guarantee but that DHA was constantly putting in place new measures to enhance security, in order to make the system as secure as possible. He added that security measures for the SAPS were not DHA’s responsibility, but that it needed to be defined, in the MOU, exactly what the SAPS wanted from DHA. The MOU contents would differ according to relevant shareholders, but would include role responsibility, system availability, expectations and after hours access.

Rev Meshoe asked how foreigners got onto the HANIS database illegally if the system was allegedly tamper-proof.

Mr Mkhize replied that this was the result of officials colluding, and corruption amongst employees.

Mr Ndlovu stated that the MOU needed to clearly define custodianship.

Ms Kohler-Barnard issued a word of caution that the security threats would not come from individual people who just wished to have an ID, but rather from multi-million rand drug syndicates who would kill to get their prints removed from any sort of database. In this case, the DHA should consult extensively with SAPS on this matter and take security very seriously, as they were moving into dangerous territory.

Mr Mkhize replied that he would communicate this to the Department and they would take the matter very seriously.

Mr Schneemann asked for comment from the State Law Advisor.

Mr Hercules asked SAPS for comment on the practicality of the process.

Mr Bothma stated that the process invoked would be the lifting of the print from the crime, which would then be scanned into the SAPS database. If it failed to obtain a match here, it would be sent through to the DHA, and a similar search would be conducted on the HANIS database. The MOU would regulate this relationship.

The meeting was adjourned.


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