Flashback to the first hearing in 1996, when the TRC began its mammoth task of uncovering the range of atrocities carried out during the apartheid era in South Africa. Despite the work done in uncovering the facts, little progress has been made in securing justice for victims, says the writer. File picture: Leon Muller/African News Agency (ANA)
Flashback to the first hearing in 1996, when the TRC began its mammoth task of uncovering the range of atrocities carried out during the apartheid era in South Africa. Despite the work done in uncovering the facts, little progress has been made in securing justice for victims, says the writer. File picture: Leon Muller/African News Agency (ANA)

Hold apartheid-era torturers to account

By Yasmin Sooka Time of article published Jun 25, 2020

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Lieutenant-Colonel Seth Sons was known to his victims and security branch officers as the “master torturer”, one of the highest-ranking black security branch officers of the apartheid-era.

Testimonies in the re-opened Ahmed Timol inquest implicate both Seth Sons and his colleague Neville Els in the unlawful detention and torture of many activists during the apartheid period, who provided sworn affidavits to this effect.

Els, a warrant officer at the time of Timol’s death, was one of the police interrogators on duty the night in 1971 that Timol’s fellow detainee, Kantilal Naik, was tortured using the “helicopter method”.

Salim Essop, who also testified at the reopened Timol inquest, relived his torture at the hands of senior security branch officers and recognised Els as the officer who escorted him to the bathroom on the 10th floor, so that he could clean himself and wash away the blood on his body after he had survived another inhumane round of torture.

He recalls Els threatening him, saying that “you will suffer the same fate as Babla Saloojee, who fell to his death from a window on the 10th floor if you do not co-operate”.

This was no idle threat given the number of detainees who had “fallen to their deaths” at John Vorster Square.

Both Sons and Els were extremely evasive at the reopened inquest into the death in detention of Timol in 1971, resulting in Judge Billy Mothle recommending that they should both be charged for perjury.

During the inquest, many detainees testified to torture at the hands of the security branch, but neither Sons nor Els have been investigated by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) or the Hawks for torture.

In a resounding blow to justice and accountability, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for North Gauteng, George Baloyi, decided not to indict the pair for perjury or obstruction of justice.

Baloyi brazenly asserted that the judge in the reopened Timol inquest had failed to place Sons under oath. This, coupled with the prescription of assault charges, the denial by Sons and Els of any knowledge of torture, as well as the advanced age of the suspects and the lapse of time, according to Baloyi, warranted a decision not to prosecute.

Had he bothered to read the record properly he would know that both men had been sworn in properly.

Unsolicited, the NPA also stated that the torture and assault charges have prescribed and “that the 20-year period in which charges can be brought have lapsed”.

Judge Mothle did not ask the NDPP to charge them for the torture or the assaults but for perjury that happened in 2017.

The DPP’s argument that age is an issue in the prosecution is not only morally revolting but needs to be rejected with utter contempt, as age cannot and should not be a barrier to prosecutions.

Radovan Karadi was convicted and sentenced to life for his role in the mass killings of civilians in the Bosnian conflict at the age of 74.

In South Africa, the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of Robert Hewitt for the rape of two young girls, crimes he had committed in the 1980s leading to his conviction at the age of 75.

On appeal, the SCA held that one’s age is not a bar to a sentence of imprisonment. It is astonishing that senior NPA legal officials responsible for justice and accountability have got it so wrong and are willing to be complicit in deepening impunity.

Judge Mothle dealt with the issue of torture extensively in his judgment finding the security branch responsible. Thousands of witnesses testified before the TRC about their torture.

A security branch officer testified before the TRC, saying: “It was not just that I believed that I was allowed to do it, I knew it.

“I knew my seniors, from my rank up to the commissioner of the police, that they condoned it, that these methods could be used to get information from ANC terrorists.”

Both Sons and Els were on duty when Timol, Salim Essop, Kantilal Naik and Dilshad Jhetam were tortured and have a case to answer as do their superiors.

The decision by the American Bar Association to withdraw an invitation to former president FW de Klerk has reignited the debate around apartheid crimes and raises how those with command and superior responsibility, including former presidents De Klerk and PW Botha and senior security force officials such as Krappies Engelbrecht and Basie Smit, escaped scrutiny.

As a society, we need to know what the higher levels of the hierarchy were, where the orders were issued and where the policies of killings, abductions and torture were formulated.

In October, the Foundation for Human Rights convened a workshop attended by the head of the NPA, advocate Shamila Batohi, and her team to meet legal teams representing the families of victims of apartheid crimes.

All of us left that workshop convinced that, finally, the TRC cases would get the attention they deserved.

I still would like to believe that our NDPP is committed to our cause and accordingly, we reiterate our commitment to supporting her to promote justice and accountability in this country.

* Sooka is a human rights lawyer in South Africa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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