SA confronts apartheid-era custody deaths

SA confronts apartheid-era custody deaths

The brutal death of anti-apartheid campaigner Ahmed Timol was allowed to go quietly unsolved in the interests of South Africa's democratic reconciliation.

Prison - generic photo

But now more than 45 years after he fell from a 10th-floor window at a notorious regime security building and died, Timol's case is being re-examined following a campaign to expose the truth led by his family.

Timol, a 30-year-old activist with the then-banned South African Communist Party (SACP), was arrested in Johannesburg on the night of October 22, 1971.

After being held in detention for five days, he was declared dead following his plunge from the blue-and-grey police headquarters onto the pavement below.

Following an investigation by authorities at the time, the anti-apartheid activist was found by a judge to have taken his own life.

Their verdict was not open to appeal.

"Murder, in the view of the testimony given, is excluded and even considering it, is ludicrous... To accept anything other than that the deceased jumped out of the window and fell to the ground can only been seen as ludicrous," said the inquest judge, J.J.L. de Villiers.

Case closed.

But Timol's friends and family would not be deterred from their pursuit of the truth.

His younger brother, who himself had been held in the apartheid regime's jails, was particularly instrumental in the campaign for justice.

"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," said Mohammad Timol.

Imtiaz Cajee, Ahmed Timol's nephew, is unequivocal about the events of October 1971.

'He was gruesomely tortured'

"He was gruesomely tortured and we believe he was murdered. If you look at the photographs of his body, nobody can believe he committed suicide," he said.

"Remember he was already the 22nd person who died in police hands in 1971, so they already had a history of killing people in police detention."

Timol's nephew has also championed the campaign for truth, pursuing many different avenues, driven by his conviction that his uncle died unlawfully.

Over the years, Imtiaz Cajee has launched media appeals, created a foundation, organised exhibitions, published a book and even recruited a private investigator with the help of an NGO.

Then in October last year there was a breakthrough -- prosecutors finally agreed to re-open Timol's case.

"We are of the opinion that there is compelling evidence that necessitates the reopening of the inquest in the interest of justice," the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) wrote.

A judge was tasked with examining the case and the first hearing was scheduled for June 26 at a Johannesburg court. For Cajee it was a cathartic victory following a long, emotional fight.

"I have very faint memories of my uncle. When he was murdered in 1971, I was merely five-years-old," he said.

"But... from a very young age, the death of my uncle had an impact on me."

In April 1996, Cajee's grandmother relieved Timol's final hours in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a public forum established to air the horrors of apartheid South Africa that was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

'Honour and legacy of my uncle'

"I (vowed) to do something constructive to preserve the honour and legacy of my uncle," said Cajee.

But despite his grandmother's powerful testimony, the case remained largely forgotten.

Undeterred, Timol's nephew began to investigate the case, poring over old documents to get to the truth which led him to apply to prosecutors to reopen the file. His application was rejected after a delay of four years.

Opening probes into deaths like that of Timol threatened to implicate members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, said Yasmin Sooka, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) and a former member of the TRC.

"They (the apartheid generals) had always said that if the NPA pursues this kind of case then they will certainly begin to lay private prosecutions against members of the ANC," she said.

With the help of Sooka's HRF, Cajee successfully reapplied for the case to be reconsidered.

And even if all of the police officers implicated in the incident have since died, Timol is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the renewed probe.

But even half-a-century after the original incident, Cajee has faced opposition to his bid to re-examine the contested and violent legacy of the apartheid era.

"It was clear during the inquest that the security branch had no motive at all to kill Timol," said J.P. Botha, a spokesman for the Foundation for Equality Before the Law which represents former police chiefs.

Beyond Ahmed's case, many other families are also seeking to expose the crimes of the apartheid regime and its supporters.

"Now we have gone through this entire period without any prosecution," said Sooka. "It makes a mockery about the very promise upon which the new South Africa is built.

"It's important, I think, to close the circle of impunity."

"It's 45 years later but justice is never too late," said Mohammad Timol. "It comes one day."


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