OUT: Former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi was freed from jail on medical parole last week. The process is under fire. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

ON FRIDAY, Correctional Services Minister Sbu Ndebele announced that former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi would be released from jail on medical parole, saying this was because he was "in the final phases of end-stage renal disease".

Selebi was convicted in 2009 of corruption, for his relationship with alleged drug trafficker Glenn Agliotti. While Selebi is taking advantage of changes in laws around medical parole, it also raises questions about the consistency with which they are applied.

There has been widespread public cynicism over Selebi's release, mainly driven by perceptions around the decision to allow President Jacob Zuma's former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, to go home on medical grounds several years ago.

In that case, he was deemed to be so unhealthy that he would only have a short time to live. However, he has since staged a miraculous recovery, being seen playing golf.

This has led to claims that those with political backgrounds are treated favourably.

For attorney Julian Knight, who has worked on several parole cases, the real issue is the difference with which these two men have been treated when compared to the case of Clive Derby-Lewis. Derby-Lewis was jailed for arranging the assassination of South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993, an act that had massive political ramifications.

He now has prostate cancer, and has been unsuccessful in his attempts to be released on medical parole. Mr Knight says there should be a scorecard and a person's application should be decided simply by how they do on that scorecard. He also worries about the independence of parole boards.

"As bad candidates as the Waterkloof Four ( a group of young men who attacked and killed a homeless person) were for their sentences to be converted (so they could go home), the fact is they qualified. But that entire parole board was fired," he said.

This then leads to questions about whether the process of medical parole is really free of political interference. Most South Africans, while appalled at what Selebi did, were probably likely to be more forgiving of his corruption than of Derby-Lewis's crime of assassination, an act which could have precipitated violence at a crucial time in SA's political transition.

The constitution says that the law must treat all people equally. Derby-Lewis's lawyers may feel that this is not happening in this case. But he is not alone. Recent reports from the inspecting judge of prisons Nathan Erasmus have indicated that more than 1000 prisoners a year die while in custody. The question is why were they not granted medical parole?

This is not just the fault of the Correctional Services Ministry. The fact is that those with resources, and access to expensive lawyers, are more likely to win an application for medical parole. They are also more likely to be aware that such a facility exists, and to have family members who will take up the fight on their behalf.

However, the current law is far from perfect. As Mr Knight points out, and officials have confirmed, should Selebi recover, he will not be going back to jail. The first drafts of new legislation did contain a provision whereby a prisoner who recovered would be re-incarcerated, but it appears that provision was removed. As a result, there would be no legal ground preventing Selebi from recovering, and joining Shaik on the golf course.

In politics, the parole for prisoners is often controversial, raising questions about how those who are politically connected are treated and about how we treat those who are from our past.

.Grootes is an Eyewitness News Reporter