Apartheid-era police custody death case opens

Apartheid-era police custody death case opens

A policeman who was with a South African anti-apartheid activist when he fell from a 10th-storey window in the 1970s could be questioned over the fatal incident, a new inquest into the death heard Monday.

Photo: Wikimedia

Ahmed Timol, a 30-year-old activist, was arrested in Johannesburg on the night of October 22, 1971 and after five days in detention he plunged to his death from the city's police headquarters.

Following an investigation by authorities at the time, the anti-apartheid activist was found by a judge to have taken his own life -- but following a long campaign by his family the case has been re-opened.

It was revealed in the Johannesburg High Court as the case began on Monday that a police sergeant, Joao Rodrigues, who was in the room with Timol before he fell is alive and talking to investigators.

The Timol family had previously speculated that all of the police officers linked to the case may already have died.   

"Whether he was pushed out of the window or whether he was forced to jump, one can't tell. But over the years I have always said that Ahmed was killed in police custody," Ahmed's younger brother Mohammad Timol previously told AFP.

'Massive punch in the stomach'

Saleem Essop, a fellow activist who was with Timol when he was arrested, told the inquest that they were both brutalised by police following their detention for possession of banned political literature.

"They took Ahmed to the back and I remained handcuffed in the front. I was given a massive punch in the stomach which really knocked me," he said. 

Essop was then accused of involvement in conspiracy to kill South African soldiers. 

He claimed that during his own interrogation on the police building's 10th floor, he saw a hooded figure struggling to walk who he believed was Timol.

"My memory of this is absolutely vivid. He was hooded but I knew more or less that it was Ahmed," he said.

Essop said he was shown the stairwell by his guards and asked how many stairs there were and told that he could die if he fell.

He added that because of his own mistreatment, he slipped into a coma.

Dozens of anti-apartheid activists died in police custody or at the hands of the security services. Many of the crimes were examined for the first time by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a public forum established to air the horrors of apartheid South Africa that was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

"There is no doubt in my mind that during these proceedings we, as South Africans, are about to enter a door that will rekindle painful memories," wrote judge Billy Mothle in his order opening the new inquest. "That door will only close once the truth is revealed."

The inquest continues.

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