Raped again – by the system

The article written by Chris Asplen has now been published in Gauteng (Saturday Star, 11 June 2011) , KZN (The Witness, 10 June 2011) and the Western Cape (Sunday Argus, 5 June 2011). The Editor of the Saturday Star took it one step further and commented on Chis Asplen’s article in his Editorial. This is what he had to say:

The editorial refers to the article which has appeared in all three major provinces in South Africa, which was originally written and published in an international Forensic Magazine. It is an opinion piece written by Chris Asplen, who was recently in South Africa, and which visit obviously drove him to write this article. It is uncomprisingly direct and honest and very hard hitting insofar as how the international forensic community view our MP’s. I wonder if any of the members of the portfolio committee for police who are ‘reviewing’ the DNA Bill, read this about themselves? And if so, how did it make them feel? I personally, would not like to have the blood of these and future victims on my hands. Perhaps, however they will prove Mr Asplen wrong, and actually get on with the job at hand this year? Well, we live in hope, as do all the rape survivors and future victims…

Forensic DNA Database legislation urgently needed amid rape epidemic

I am a former prosecutor in the United States where I was the advisor to two US Attorneys General on the use of forensic DNA technology and where I was the Executive Director of the US Department of Justice’s National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence.  My specialty as a prosecutor was the prosecution of sex crimes committed against children. I left the Department of Justice about 10 years ago and began consulting internationally on the integration of forensic DNA evidence into criminal justice systems. I have been fortunate to help over 35 countries realize the potential of DNA technology to protect victims – mostly women and children – from the horrors of rape. I have spent equal time and energy to protect  the innocent – mostly men – from the tragedy of wrongful conviction with the very same technology.

When I first started working abroad, my presentations would often start with a rhetorical question that went something like this:  “What is the most important factor influencing the success of forensic DNA databasing?  Is it the quality of the laboratory performing the analysis? Is it the training and education of the police ensuring that they collect valuable evidence?  Or perhaps the skill with which prosecutors can leverage the probative value of DNA to support their victims’ testimony?” But of course it was a loaded question.  I had my own answer. “It’s actually none of these…” I would say. “The most important factor influencing the potential effect of DNA in any criminal justice system is what the law allows you to do with it.”

Now I am a little biased here.  I am a lawyer by training, by education and probably by nature. But I have a pretty good argument.  You can have the best, most advanced laboratory system in the world, the most rigorous quality assurance procedures, and send specialized crime scene analysts to every crime scene – but those factors mean little if the law does not allow you leverage the full potential of the technology and the evidence.

Nowhere is that dynamic more tragically clear than in South Africa.

I first traveled to South Africa 10 years ago. I left the Department of Justice less than a year earlier and had been invited to participate in a meeting of Interpol’s DNA Expert Monitoring Group in Pretoria.  It was my first trip to the continent so to say that I was excited is an understatement. I did not, in all honesty though, harbor great expectations regarding what I would see from the standpoint of South Africa’s use of DNA technology. But when I saw what the South African Police Service (SAPS) was doing, I was nothing short of astounded.  The SAPS had an automated system for DNA analysis that was unique in the world.  As we toured through the laboratory I realized that it was, at that time,  the most advanced forensic DNA testing robotics system I had ever seen.  I was so impressed that I literally walked out of the lab, got on my phone and called my former colleagues at DOJ trying to convince them to bring Johann and his colleagues to the US so that they could explain what they were doing.  South Africa was going to be a model, not only for Africa, but perhaps for the world.  They had crime statistics that proved South Africa to be one of the most sexually violent places on the planet and they had the capacity and technical sophistication to hit back hard.  South Africa was going to prove the power of DNA like nowhere else.

The automated DNA Robotics system at the Pretoria Forensics Lab

The automated DNA Robotics system at the Pretoria Forensics Lab

Boy was I wrong.

I have just returned from another trip to South Africa, a trip I have made many times since my first visit. And to be clear, it is not the police that have failed, nor is it the technology, nor is it the laboratory personnel.  Rather, ten years after South Africa created one of the most important laboratory infrastructures in the world, the politicians in the South African Parliament have still failed to give police the legal authority to save literally thousands upon thousands of lives with DNA.  Ten years later and South Africa, in contrast with more than 50 countries around the world, still has no legislation allowing for the establishment of a forensic DNA database.

South Africa is a strikingly beautiful country from its coast line at the Cape of Good Hope to Krugar National Park to the wine regions of Stellenbosch.  It is also the economic anchor for sub-Saharan Africa.   It has a technology portfolio that includes a nuclear weapons program (and the wisdom to subsequently dismantle it) a 2002 Noble Prize for work in microbiology and the first human to human heart transplant was performed in South Africa.   And most importantly, it is a country which engineered one of the most significant triumphs of human spirit and potential – the non-violent elimination of apartheid

But South Africa is also a country that, according to the United Nations, ranks second for murder and first for assaults and rapes per capita. 52 people are murdered every day there and the number of rapes reported in a year is around 55,000.  It is estimated that 500,000 rapes are committed annually in South Africa. In a 2009 survey, one in four South African men admitted to raping someone.  Even more insidiously, South Africa has one of the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world.  It is a country where the belief exists that intercourse will cure or prevent HIV/AIDS and where child rape is used as a method of retaliation against someone else for a perceived wrong.  Children are murdered and body parts used for “traditional” medicinal remedies.  And in a country also cursed with epidemic rates of HIV/Aids, rape takes on an exponentially tragic dimension.

The world holds no shortage of human tragedies.  But most of those tragedies persist because there are no clear, identifiable fixes.  Feeding entire starving countries from overworked, infertile land or generating clean, lifesaving water from dry, parched earth are heavy lifts.  Wars and the conflicts that lead to catastrophic loss of human life have been with us since the beginning of time.  But when it comes to fighting back against serial rapists and pedophiles? I have examples from every corner of the planet of exactly what works and just how well.  There is nothing better at getting rapists off the street, at protecting little girls and, by the way, at protecting those who would be wrongly accused and convicted of those serious crimes than DNA databases.

And what exacerbates the tragedy tenfold is the fact that, unlike many countries with the wisdom to implement DNA databases fully, South Africa already has all the other components necessary to leverage the power DNA technology -the laboratory system, the finances, the education and the commitment by police. There are no other excuses, nowhere  else to place responsibility.

As someone who works regularly in other peoples’ countries, I don’t “call out” or criticize foreign  officials easily or often.  But on a scale unequaled anywhere else on earth, hundreds of thousands of children’s lives are sacrificed because of the failure to act by politicians in South Africa.  The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee responsible for the legislation that would give police the ability to immediately begin taking rapists off the street has avoided acting on the law for years.  The legislation sits in Committee while the worst sexual violence statistics in the world continue to pile up.   Except they are not really statistics. They are terrified woman and little girls staring into the face of horrific violence and evil while they are likely infected with HIV – three more of them just in the time it took you to read this article.

Chris Asplen

Executive Director, DNA 4 Africa


9 Responses to “Raped again – by the system”

  1. Jean Mayhew says:

    Please continue spreading the awareness campaign. This seems the only way we the ordinary people can fight the government.

  2. Rose Kennedy says:

    Every avenue availble to aid and prevent further crime should be implemented. Enough is enough – actions speak louder than words. No more excuses, we have the technology and experts to help in this department, so let’s do it.

  3. […] Reading: Raped again – by the system in which Chris Aplen examines this statement; “The most important factor influencing the […]

  4. […] Reading: Raped again – by the system in which Chris Aplen examines this statement; “The most important factor influencing the […]

  5. […] suggest you read the following article for some sobering insight. I am interested to hear what you have to say about this and whether you […]

  6. […] Chris Asplen, a DNA policy expert with U.S. federal, state and international experience has an extensive understanding of the administration of DNA Databases and is recognised as one of the foremost legal experts on forensic DNA technology. He has also worked with the SA government previously as well as the governments of the United Kingdom, Italy,  the Philippines, China, India, Kenya, Croatia, Serbia, Russia, Chile, the Netherlands and several more. Chris previously commented on how victims of rape are being let down by our politicians who have failed to pass legislation which would ensure that profiles are kept on a DNA database for criminal intelligence purposes to resolve crimes even where there is no suspect. Click here to read more. […]

  7. […] I think it is a very good opportunity to procure his further commentary on the DNA Bill. In a previous editorial which hit several SA newspaper’s last year, Chris made some hard hitting comments which […]

  8. Emma Clark says:

    Thank you Chris for adding your voice to the gathering outrage. Unfortunately there is now an added element to this. The South African police have begun raping South African women. These crimes are increasing – two incidents in December 2011 alone. And because they are the police the DNA situation gets worse… they are conspiring to cover up their crimes with the help of their fellow police officers. Some police stations in Johannesburg have even REFUSED to take women’s statements about being raped by the police.

  9. […] Chris Asplen’s recent article which was published on our blog and in various newspapers last week, has created much dialogue, most of it positive, except in the case of one letter by a lady who believes that Chris ‘s article was simply an ‘emotive polemic’. Click here to read her expert opinion on DNA as a crime fighting tool in SA… […]