Zimbabwe frees apartheid killers

Published Jul 2, 2006


By Basildon Peta and Karyn Maughan

Nearly two decades after they were sentenced to death for murder and sabotage committed in Zimbabwe for the apartheid government, three ailing prisoners have been pardoned by President Robert Mugabe.

Kevin Woods, 53, Michael Smith, 53, and Philip Conjwayo, 73, walked out of Harare central prison on Saturday into the bright winter sunshine. They had spent 19 years in Zimbabwe's grim Chikurubi maximum security prison, from where they were moved last year. Woods and Smith immediately drove to South Africa, where Woods's wife and children now live, while Conjwayo chose to remain in Zimbabwe.

It was not clear why Mugabe suddenly had a change of heart yesterday. For years he had rejected the pleas of then-president Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many others to release "The Harare Three", as they became known.

There were suggestions that a Zimbabwean priest and Ronnie Kasrils, the intelligence minister, could have played roles in their release, although Kasrils denied this through his spokesperson, Lorna Daniels.

A Zimbabwe government spokesperson said the three were pardoned on humanitarian grounds. Conjwayo suffers from cancer and Woods had previously applied unsuccessfully for permission to secure medical treatment in South Africa for his heart condition.

Woods told Zimbabwe television on Saturday: "We are grateful to the president for his clemency... to family and friends throughout the world, also to the prisons - it has not been easy for them to look after us for such a long time, but they did a good job."

Woods, Smith and Conjwayo were sentenced to death by the Zimbabwe high court in November 1988 for the murder of a Zimbabwean driver, Obed Mwanza, whom they hired to drive a car to a house occupied by ANC officials in Bulawayo in January 1988.

Mwanza did not know he was carrying a bomb, which the three men detonated while he was in it, killing him and injuring three ANC officials. The Zimbabwe supreme court later commuted their sentences to life in prison.

Woods and Smith were handed over to South African diplomats outside the Harare prison on Saturday and were given 24 hours to leave the country after being declared prohibited immigrants.

After some initial confusion over their emergency travel documents, which caused them to miss a flight to Johannesburg, they were driven to the border crossing at Beit Bridge, which they were expected to reach on Saturday night.

Conjwayo was met with embraces from his son, Obert, and taken away by car.

The citizenship of the three was a disputed issue that materially affected their chances of an earlier pardon. All three were originally Zimbabwean, but President Thabo Mbeki disclosed in parliament in September 2003 that the National Party government had granted Woods, Smith and Conjwayo South African citizenship on April 21 1994 - six days before the country's first democratic elections.

Mbeki said the purpose was to oblige the incoming ANC government to intervene on behalf of the men. Mbeki questioned the legality of the move, but said the South African embassy in Harare had extended consular services to the three men.

Conjwayo, though, had asked for the services to be stopped because, he said, they jeopardised his status as a Zimbabwean national. Mbeki said at the time that he had raised the issue of the Harare Three with Mugabe, but added that South Africa should "respect the right of the government of Zimbabwe to take whatever decisions it considers fit and proper, affecting Zimbabweans".

He also suggested that public agitation would not help secure the release of the three. This seems to have been an accurate assessment. The prospects of the three spies ever being pardoned dimmed considerably when they infuriated Mugabe by launching an international appeal to be released from prison.

The campaign included the launch of a website by their sympathisers highlighting the appalling conditions in which they were detained at Chikurubi, and their deteriorating health.

"The sooner you realise that salvation will come from nobody else but us, the better for you," an infuriated former justice minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told the three during a tour of prisons, in response to their international campaign to get released.

Another member of their group, Barry Desmond Bawden, was released from jail in 1999 after serving 11 years of an initial 25-year jail term, by virtue of remissions for good behaviour and a 1996 presidential clemency order that slashed a quarter of the time off his original sentence.

The pardoning of the three has brought huge relief to their families. Some thought the news was too good to be believed and said that they would withhold comment until they saw the men released.

Woods's wife, Jane, who lives in South Africa, is out of the country but a close relative, Joan Swanepoel, said from Durban that she would not express her feelings until she had seen Woods set foot in South Africa.

In a letter written on May 6 this year, Woods told a friend that his son, Clinton, was going to become a father in October. "I've got to get out of here... I've missed so much of my kids' lives already," he wrote.

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