In a statement on Saturday evening, the Council of Muslim Theologians Jamiatul Ulama said they had been left “appalled” at what they had seen in a video being widely circulated since Friday after the SA Police Service (SAPS) stormed a prayer gathering and arrested 17 men.
The suspects were arrested at a building in Pretoria West on Friday where they had been found praying, allegedly in breach of lockdown regulations. The men were released on bail on Saturday.
Religious gatherings have been outlawed during the lockdown, and will likely continue to be even once restrictions start to be gradually lifted from the end of the month as the country moves into level 4 of lockdown alert levels.
In the video, the group of Muslims can be seen at Friday prayers ahead of Ramadan with no one observing any social distancing measures.
The police can be heard chastising the group, and informing them they are all under arrest. One man who appears to explain something in mitigation is told, “You are an adult,” along with being told that they are blatantly ignoring a measure decided on by the president of the country.
“You mean the president is crazy?” the police ask in the footage.
Controversially, one of the officers can then be heard challenging the worshippers with a comment asking: “Are you bigger than the president? Heh? Or Muhammad is bigger than the president?”
— Yusuf Abramjee (@Abramjee) April 25, 2020
Jamiatul Ulama secretary-general EI Bham said in a statement that they accepted the officers had had a right to enforce the law, but they found the “abusive and heavy-handed nature of the SAPS officers … unacceptable”.
“Apart from the verbal abuse which is demeaning of the name of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the SAPS officers are also seen entering the prayer room in their heavy boots. Such images are distressing to Muslims who consider prayer places sacred and entered upon only without shoes.”
They said the suspects remained entitled to their dignity and the police had “abused a symbol of the faith of an entire community”.
They called it “an assault on freedom of belief and conscience, let alone an abuse of authority and powers”.
They called on the SA Human Rights Commission and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to investigate the officers’ conduct.