JOHANNESBURG, Apr 19 – Prosecutors said Thursday they could seek life in prison for the gang rape of a teenage girl, which was filmed and went viral, forcing South Africa to confront the horrors of its rape crisis.
The 17-year-old Soweto girl will undergo a psychiatric evaluation, said prosecutions spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga, amid reports that she has the mental capacity of a four-year-old.
“We require a formal confirmation of the mental status of the girl because at face value we have reasons to believe that the girl is mentally unstable, which then takes the case to be a schedule six offence,” he said on eNews television.
“When an offence falls under schedule six, it means that it’s classified as a very serious offence that attracts a life imprisonment.”
“We will allege during trial that she was raped several times.”
Police on Tuesday arrested seven youths, aged 14 to 20, after they were identified based on the video images.
They appeared Thursday in closed-door court hearing, and will be kept in custody until their next hearing on Wednesday.
Charges are also being considered for a 37-year-old man after police found the girl in his house.
The girl had gone missing on March 21, but police said her mother had not reported her missing, apparently because she often wandered off for days at a time. Charges of child neglect are being mulled for the mother.
“In respect of the 37-year-old man as well as the mother, investigations are still underway. We have not charged them at this stage,” Mhaga said.
The girl lived in Bramfischerville, a neighbourhood where raw sewage flows through the streets, in one of the toughest parts of Johannesburg’s sprawling and economically diverse Soweto township.
Such deeply impoverished areas are scene to the vast majority of the violent crime in South Africa, a country rated as among the deadliest in the world outside of war zones.
The rape video has shocked a nation where gruesome tales of sexual violence are commonplace. On Monday alone, the Johannesburg High Court heard 62 rape cases, including a father-son pair charged with attacking 21 women together.
Last month in Bloemfontein, a male nurse appeared in court on charges of raping a terminally ill cancer patient, who was held down by a female nurse during the attack.
In January, a man was charged with forcing three garden workers to rape his estranged wife and then mutilate her with household tools, killing her son while she listened to him plead for his life.
But the latest case has proved especially harrowing, partly in shock at the number of people willing to watch the 10 minute and 33 seconds of unbearably graphic video.
Local radio broadcast sound clips, letting listeners hear first-hand the rapists’ taunts and the girl’s desperate pleas. The tabloid Daily Sun published an ominous screen shot showing the attackers standing around their victim.
The low-quality cell phone video shows the girl screaming and begging for her attackers to stop as they took turns to rape her, according to local media.
It ends with one offering her two rands (26 US cents) for her silence and she is heard crying.
Watching or distributing the video is a crime under South Africa’s child pornography law, and Mhaga vowed to bring charges against anyone in possession of it.
Cabinet on Thursday condemned the attack, calling on “the law enforcement to ensure that the full might of the law is implemented”.
Law enforcement is only one part of South Africa’s rape crisis, with more than 56,000 cases reported to police last year.
But a 2009 study by the government’s Medical Research Council revealed that only one in 25 rapes were reported to the police.
The same survey found more than one quarter of South African men admitted to raping a woman or girl.
“This episode must force us to take a serious look at ourselves and ask: How did we get here? How did we, as a people, raise monsters who find a joke in this repugnant act,” The Star newspaper wrote in a rare front-page editorial, under a banner headline: “A nation’s shame.”