By Gregory Walton and Beatrice Debut, AFP/Pretoria
An anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody 46 years ago did not commit suicide but was murdered by officers, a South African court said yesterday in a historic ruling for campaigners.
The court called for an officer involved in covering up the circumstances of the 1971 death to be investigated as an accessory to murder.
The packed courtroom in Pretoria burst into applause after the judge delivered a damning indictment of how police treated those who opposed white-minority rule.
Ahmed Timol, a 29-year-old campaigner against apartheid, was arrested in Johannesburg in October 1971.
After five days in detention, he died after plummeting from the city’s police headquarters.
Officers from the feared security branch that held Timol said at the time that he took his own life – a verdict endorsed by an inquest in 1972.
But his family fought the ruling for decades and campaigned to secure the legal review, which finally began in June.
“Timol did not jump out of the window but was pushed out of the window or off the roof,” said judge Billy Mothle, reading a summary of his 129-page judgment. “Members of the security branch ... murdered Timol.”
The judge called for security branch officer Joao Rodrigues, who admitted helping cover up the murder, to be prosecuted.
But he acknowledged that the men who were directly responsible have since died.
“Most of the main perpetrators have since passed on (but) all security branch officers responsible for guarding and interrogating Timol are collectively responsible for his injuries,” said Mothle.
Members of the South African Communist Party to which Timol belonged who were present in court shouted “Viva Ahmed Timol!” as the judge adjourned the hearing and the public gallery burst into applause.
“Judge Billy Mothle delivered a fine – a superb – judgment,” said Salim Essop who was arrested, detained and tortured alongside Timol in 1971. “He concluded that the police were responsible for his death ... they did have the risk of killing him by torturing him and in that respect they were responsible for his murder.”
Mothle called for families who lost relatives in circumstances similar to Timol’s to be assisted in reopening their cases – especially where suicide was recorded as the cause of death.
Between 1963 and 1990, human rights activists say that 73 people died in police detention, sometimes in circumstances that are strikingly similar to Timol’s.
George Bizos, an anti-apartheid icon who was close friends with Nelson Mandela, welcomed the outcome and said the case showed that police were still unaccountable for their actions under white rule.
“I hope that what has happened today will happen again in relation to the others (who died suspiciously). Justice has a way of actually reaching the top,” said Bizos, 88, who was visibly emotional during the hearing.
The judge also praised Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, for successfully lobbying for the case to be reopened.
“His efforts should be elevated as an example of how citizens should assert their constitutional rights,” said Mothle.
But Cajee expressed frustration that the former security branch officers called to give evidence had not been more open about their conduct.
“They lost the opportunity to help South Africa’s greater reconciliation,” he said after the ruling.
For many, the case – the culmination of a relentless campaign by the activist’s family – brought back raw memories of life under apartheid.
During the review, the Pretoria court heard testimony from pathologists, former security officers and victims of state brutality.
Their evidence triggered anger in court 2D – including from the family who have been present at every hearing.
“The Timol family has been driven not by vengeance but by the pursuit of truth and justice,” retired archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement read to the courtroom after the hearing.
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