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Defence claims Oscar ‘vulnerable’ in prison

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PISTORIUS-FATEPRETORIA, October 14- Double amputee Oscar Pistorius would be highly vulnerable in South Africa’s brutal jails, his disability elevating the risk of poor hygiene and even gang rape, a defence witness claimed Tuesday.

Parole officer Annette Vergeer warned that prison would “break” the Paralympian star athlete, as his legal team mounted a fierce last-ditch battle to keep him from going to jail for manslaughter over the killing of his girlfriend last year.

“Without legs he will be vulnerable and a lot more vulnerable than the normal man,” said Vergeer, who was paid for her work for the defence.

“I’ve recently done a case for rape within the prison, gang rape, how can we say that he won’t be exposed to that?” she said, adding that washing his stumps may also be a problem.

Pistorius was found guilty last month of culpable homicide over the killing of 29-year-old Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year, but acquitted of murder.

His sentencing hearing began at a Pretoria court on Monday and is expected to run for the much of the week, with witnesses being called in his defence and by prosecutors demanding he serves time in jail.

Judge Thokozile Masipa will likely make her decision on Friday, a state source told AFP. 

Vergeer argued for a three year non-custodial sentence, claiming prison “will only have a negative impact and in fact place him in danger. It will not assist him, it will break him.”

Another defence witness on Monday suggested Pistorius clean a museum for 16 hours a week as punishment, drawing a furious reaction from state lawyers.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel described the suggestion as “shockingly inappropriate”. 

There is no mandatory sentence for culpable homicide in South Africa, and Masipa could give Pistorius anything from a suspended sentence to 15 years in jail.

South Africa’s department of correctional services has said that Pistorius could be entitled to separate accommodation “depending on the vulnerability caused by the disability”.

“Each case is based on its own merits” they said in a recent statement.

But there is little doubt that the prison system in South Africa is in a bad state, with violence, overcrowding and recidivism apparently endemic.

According to non-governmental group NICRO, South Africa’s prison population is 137 percent of capacity. Those in jail for violent or sexual offences make up around 70 percent of the inmate population.

– Charity or advancement – 

Prosecutors also Tuesday fiercely attacked the defence picture of 27-year-old Pistorius as a caring and charitable athlete.

Nel said his charity work was nothing unusual for a superstar athlete, arguing he was primarily motivated by personal fame and fulfilling his contractual duties with major sponsors, including sunglasses brand Oakely and Nike. 

“It is merely an advancement of your career to become involved,” Nel said in a scathing cross-examination of Pistorius’s long-time manager Peet van Zyl. 

“I think a lot of sportsman want to make a difference and contribute,” replied Van Zyl.  

Pistorius, who at times cried and vomited during his trial, appeared relaxed in court, often passing notes to his legal team. 

Pistorius’s manager did not rule out the possibility of the sprinter returning to work and said he had already been approached to give motivational speeches. 

Pistorius admitted he killed Steenkamp by firing four bullets through a locked toilet door in his upmarket Pretoria home, but said he believed he had been shooting at a burglar.

The athlete’s therapist Lore Hartzenberg told the court Monday that Pistorius suffered genuine remorse and was virtually inconsolable during initial counselling sessions after he killed Steenkamp, describing him as a “broken man”.

Pistorius is currently out on bail of one million rand ($90,000, 71,000 euros). 

He had to sell his posh house inside a gated compound in Pretoria, the scene of the crime, to fund the cost of his defence, and has withdrawn from competitive sport since his arrest.

The state has indicated it will call at least two witnesses, whose testimony is expected to wrap up on Wednesday or Thursday. 

Both the state and defence have 14 days to appeal Masipa’s decision. 

The trial, which began on March 3, was broadcast live on television and radio, feeding intense local and international media interest.

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