Nicholas Deetlefs might have been given enough rope to hang himself and others
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The testimony of former Security Branch policeman Nicholas Deetlefs this week at the Neil Aggett inquest might have finally given prosecutors enough evidence to prosecute and jail one of the most notorious interrogators at John Vorster Square.
Deetlefts started his career in 1979 on the 10th floor. He remained there as an “experienced” interrogator of political detainees until 1994.
This week, his many victims, in South Africa and abroad, finally got to see him questioned on the stand in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, while advocate Howard Varney, acting on behalf of the Aggett family, largely discredited Deetlef’s testimony which, at times, bordered on the absurd.
Deetlefs would have us believe that the 10th floor had such a “nice atmosphere” that “detainees preferred to sleep there rather than in their cells”.
For the victims of the apartheid regime, the 10th floor of John Vorster Square was widely known to be a place of terror, where victims were subjected to electric shocks, sleep deprivation, stress positions, beatings and far worse.
The type of horror security branch investigators exacted on detainees were not only gross violations of human rights, but crimes against humanity.
It is ironic that as former president FW de Klerk continues to deny that apartheid was a crime against humanity, his foot soldiers in the Security Branch continue to cover up their crimes and claim they treated detainees humanely.
The longer Deetlefs was on the stand, the more he contradicted himself. At first he said torture was never used at John Vorster Square. Later, he said he had heard people on the 10th floor reacting as a result of pain - he heard them making a noise (of course he could not bring himself to articulate that they were screaming in pain). He then admitted this could have been due to assault.
Deetlefs later came around to admitting he had heard that “electric shocks were done at different times to different detainees by different security officers”. He finally said that electric shocks “were of course done” and that “it was a general thing”.
Deetlefs said torture was talked about by security policemen in the passages, and it came up a lot. But the man who spent his career on the 10th floor “did not know who did it”.
Deetlefs never asked for amnesty for his crimes at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said he “didn’t know about the TRC or how to approach it”.
The man who is open to prosecution by the National Prosecuting Authority because he never told the truth about the crimes he committed, would have us believe that he “never used violence against detainees” as it was “against his principles”.
That claim unravelled as he then admitted that he had used assault “previously”, and when pressed on which detainees he had assaulted, he would give only Barbara Hogan’s name.
Deetlefs was aware Hogan had testified in the inquest that he had assaulted her.
Hogan said when Deetlefs and Lawrence Prince interrogated her, Deetlefs had also assaulted her, which he says was only a slap across the face, but by the time she was taken to her cell she had internal bleeding.
When she was taken to the district surgeon, Hogan said Deetlefs warned her not to report the assault, but should say she bruised easily. Hogan told the truth. Dr Norman Jacobson phoned Brigadier Miller, the commanding officer, and said they must stop assaulting her.
Hogan is one of many who suffered greatly at the hands of Deetlefs.
It is time others came forward with their testimonies, if not in the Aggett inquest, then in a subsequent trial, now that the Aggett family is intent on having him prosecuted. The basis for the prosecution is probably to be that Deetlefs will be considered an accessory to Aggett’s murder, as he allowed a person to be harmed and did nothing about it.
Varney put it to Deetlefs in court this week that he collaborated with senior officers to cover up crimes,
as covering up was routine practice.
When Varney put it to Deetlefs that evidence of the Security Branch in relation to crimes against detainees must be treated with caution as cover-ups were the order of the day, Deetlefs answered “correct”.
It is no wonder that at the start of Deetlefs’s second day of testimony when he was asked if he had had a good night sleep, he answered “I did not, my Lord”.
There will be little sleep to be had by those who thought they could get away with their crimes against humanity, as the might of the law will be brought against them.
It is true that justice comes too late for the apartheid victims, but better late than never.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s foreign editor.