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South Africa shocked by prison break of rapist who faked death

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera 3/27/2023
The prison system in South Africa is under fire after mistakenly believing a burned body found in a cell belonged to a serial rapist who, instead, had escaped (File: AFP) © Provided by Al Jazeera The prison system in South Africa is under fire after mistakenly believing a burned body found in a cell belonged to a serial rapist who, instead, had escaped (File: AFP)

Police in South Africa say they have launched a manhunt for a convicted rapist who faked his own death in a daring prison break that has shocked the country.

Authorities said they had believed Thabo Bester died after setting himself alight in a privately run prison in Bloemfontein in May, but at the weekend, police said DNA tests revealed the charred remains found in the serial rapist’s cell belonged to someone else.

“At this point, our priority is to find this fugitive of justice and establish exactly how he faked his death,” police spokeswoman Athlenda Mathe told reporters on Monday.

Called the “Facebook rapist”, Bester allegedly lured victims on the social media platform before raping and robbing them. At least one victim was killed. In 2012, he was sentenced to life in prison for rape, robbery and murder.

On Sunday, police said an autopsy revealed the person found dead in Bester’s cell had died from blunt force trauma to the head before being set ablaze. A murder investigation has been opened.

The case has sparked outrage in South Africa, where women’s rights groups have long accused the government of not doing enough to tackle violence against women.

“The unfolding of this story has been like a movie and sent shivers down everyone’s spines. … I can imagine what it did to the victims,” said Bafana Khumalo, co-director of the NGO Sonke Gender Justice.

From October to December, police recorded more than 12,000 rapes across the country.

Doubts about Bester’s death were first raised by local media outlet GroundUp in November.

Photographs purportedly showing the convict grocery shopping in an affluent Johannesburg suburb have since surfaced. Some women have also come forward alleging the convict made contact with them on social media.

Before his escape, Bester also reportedly ran a scam media business from inside prison using a false name.

According to local outlet News24, he posed as head of 21st Century Media, a phantom event and production company that was a supposed subsidiary of the American company 21st Century Fox.

The media company promoted a 2018 event that advertised Hollywood superstars but turned out to be a scam, the paper said. A video of Bester addressing a company event via video call from behind bars while pretending to be in New York has gone viral.

“The escape of Bester … is testament to the incompetence of the Correctional Services system, and the endemic corruption in the sector,” the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters opposition party said in a statement.

Police have appealed to the public for any information relevant to the case.

“We want to find people who are directly involved in this matter as well as his accomplices,” Mathe said.



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