Oscar Pistorius jailed for five years but ‘short’ sentence fiercely criticised

Oscar Pistorius enters a police van after his sentencing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Photograph: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS

Outrage on social media as defence lawyers for disgraced Paralympian seek his release into house arrest after 10 months

    David Smith in Pretoria
    The Guardian

 The last the world saw of Oscar Pistorius on Tuesday was a sombre figure, still wearing suit and tie, under police guard in the back of an armoured vehicle as he was transported to Kgosi Mampuru II prison in Pretoria.

It was left to the imagination what fate awaited the disgraced Paralympian as he prepared to have fingerprints taken, don an orange jumpsuit and spend his first night behind bars at the start of a five-year jail term for killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

The sentence was handed down by the high court judge Thokozile Masipa, bringing an enthralling and exhausting 49-day trial to an end.

Steenkamp’s mother, June, said justice had been served. When it was put to her that, a sixth of the way into his sentence, after only 10 months, Pistorius would be eligible to apply to serve the rest under house arrest, she replied: “It doesn’t matter. He’s going to pay something.”

Steenkamp’s father, Barry, added: “We are satisfied.”

Prosecutors will decide within 14 days whether to appeal against the length of the prison term.

But the prospect of an early release caused a fierce backlash on social media and among campaigners against gender violence, with many arguing that Pistorius should have been convicted of murder instead of culpable homicide, the equivalent of manslaughter. The double-amputee athlete killed 29-year-old Steenkamp by shooting four times through a locked toilet door on Valentine’s day last year after mistaking her for an intruder.

Even so, the hopes of the “Blade Runner” and his supporters that he could be spared prison altogether and resume his lucrative sporting career were dashed when Masipa sat on the court dais for the last time and pronounced sentence. “Mr Pistorius, please rise,” she told him.

The 27-year-old stood rigid, jaw muscles clenched, hands folded in front of him, and stared straight ahead. Behind, in the public gallery, his sister Aimee held a hand to her forehead, while his father Henke, who says the ordeal has brought them closer together following a long estrangement, betrayed little emotion. “The following is what I consider to be a sentence that is fair and just both to society and to the accused,” Masipa said. “Count one, culpable homicide: the sentence imposed is a maximum imprisonment of five years.”

For a trial that has seen sobbing, vomiting and much melodrama, the reaction from both families to the climactic moment was muted and stoical. But when Masipa finished, Pistorius was quietly tearful. He stepped out of the dock, leaving behind four white roses from a well-wisher and his green sick bucket. He clasped the hands of family members, passing his designer watch to an uncle for safe keeping. There were a few consoling words.

Then the hero of the 2012 London Olympics was led by a police officer down a bleak staircase to the holding cells. He descended 23 steps, one of them badly chipped, with a handrail whose paint was scratched and, in the gloomy basement, walked through a plain wooden door. About an hour later, Pistorius emerged with a clutch of police officers who escorted him past the cameras to an armoured vehicle and Kgosi Mampuru II prison. Formerly Pretoria Central, the jail was once notorious for hanging apartheid-era political prisoners.

At present 7,000 inmates endure overcrowding, gang violence and unsanitary conditions, but Pistorius was expected to undergo an immediate assessment to be detained in the hospital area.

In an hour-long ruling, judge Masipa said she had striven for a prison sentence that was neither too light nor too severe. “I am of the view that a non-custodial sentence would send a wrong message to the community,” she told the court. “On the other hand, a long sentence would not be appropriate either, as it would lack the element of mercy.”

The judge said house arrest and community service – proposed by two defence witnesses in mitigation – would not be appropriate for Pistorius, who had been guilty of “gross negligence”. She said: “Using a lethal weapon, a loaded firearm, the accused fired not one, but four shots into the door. The toilet was a small cubicle and there was no room for escape for the person behind the door.”

Masipa said she had no reason to believe that South Africa’s prisons would not be able to cater for the needs of a disabled person. “Yes, the accused is vulnerable, but he also has excellent coping skills.”

Perhaps anticipating criticism that she has been too lenient on Pistorius because of his celebrity, the judge noted: “It would be a sad day for this country if an impression was created that there is one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous.”

She also said pointedly: “Society cannot always get what they want. Courts do not exist for a popularity contest but only to dispense justice … The general public may not even know the difference between punishment and vengeance.”

Family and friends of Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, wore pictures of her face on their lapels. Masipa described her as “young, vivacious and full of life … a promising young woman who cared deeply for family, who was full of hope for the future, and lived life to the full.”

Masipa continued: “The loss of life cannot be reversed. Nothing I do or say today can reverse what happened to the deceased and to her family. Hopefully this sentence shall provide some sort of closure to the family … so they can move on with their lives.”

But gender activists condemned the outcome. Rachel Jewkes, director of gender and health research at the South African Medical Research Council,said: “I was appalled when I heard the sentence.”

She described it as an opportunity “very tragically missed”, adding: “This incredibly short sentence for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp is another example of the lives and the career and the future of a man being valued over that of a woman who he has killed.”

Pistorius was also given a three-year sentence, suspended for five years, for a firearms offence when a gun went off in a restaurant.

Pistorius would not appeal, he added. “The court has now handed its sentence, and we accept the court’s ruling. Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society … I hope Oscar will start his own healing process as he now treads the path of restoration. As a family, we will support and guide Oscar as serves his sentence.”

South Africa’s national prosecuting authority has two weeks to decide whether to appeal against the verdict or the sentence.

A spokesman, Nathi Mncube, said: “We have stated that we were disappointed with the judgment but we take solace in fact that Pistorius will serve time in jail.”

Source: The Guardian, UK

Publish Date: 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014