Former apartheid police officer Joao Rodrigues Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency/ANA
Johannesburg - What's most revealing in João Rodrigues’s application to dismiss the charges against him is an admission that he was involved in a cover-up.

“My only involvement,” he says, “was that I participated in the cover-up to conceal the crime of murder as an accessory after the fact of the murder.”

When he testified in the two inquests into Ahmed Timol’s death, in 1972 and last year, at neither did he say he was involved in a cover-up, nor did he implicate security officers Captain Johannes van Niekerk and Captain Johannes Gloy.

Admitting that he was involved in a cover-up and that Gloy and Van Niekerk were probably responsible for Timol’s murder seems, for Rodrigues, a new point of departure in seeking exoneration from a murder charge. His application provides little or nothing about the details of the cover-up.

The cover-up, if we revisit the 1972 inquest, was to do with him supposedly hearing a mysterious Mr X saying he had the names of Timol’s three foreign co-conspirators while Gloy and Van Niekerk were interrogating Timol. Mr X’s identity was never revealed. The reality is that he did not exist.

If Rodrigues admits to being part of a cover-up, he needs to testify in court what the cover-up was about, and why there was one.

Just how true is Rodrigues’s claim, as made in his application, that his rights to a fair trial, to be prosecuted without unreasonable delay, to be informed in detail of the charges and to challenge the evidence have all been abrogated?

Rodrigues did not avail himself of the opportunity to present himself at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) some 20 years ago to give an account of his version.

When information was publicised that a second inquest was going to be held, he did not, once again, agree to testify. It was only after his daughter revealed his whereabouts that he was approached to testify, and he did so.

It’s true that the National Prosecuting Authority failed to look into the cases of around 300 apartheid-era suspects who, the TRC said, should have been investigated and prosecuted. The NPA must give a plausible account of why this happened, but should Rodrigues’s prosecution be permanently stayed because the NPA failed to prosecute him timeously? The answer should be a categorical “no”.

Roderigues’s role in Timol’s murder was revealed only recently - only after Judge Billy Mothle ruled in his judgment on October 12 last year that Rodrigues had lied about Timol’s murder and should be investigated. The NPA went ahead with prosecuting Rodrigues. It also gave his defence team detailed evidence of the charges.

Given all this, it can’t be argued that there was a protracted delay in bringing charges. It was not long ago that it was ruled in court that Rodrigues should be investigated, and it was not long after that that the NPA brought charges against him.

There is one glaring discrepancy in the evidence that Rodrigues gave in the two inquests. He claimed, under oath, that Timol “dived out” from the window of the room where he was being interrogated in Room 1026 on the 10th floor of John Vorster Square at a specific time: just before 4pm on Wednesday, October 27, 1971.

In contrast, on the basis of the testimonies of three witnesses, Judge Mothle found that Timol’s body fell to the ground around mid-morning.

What the discrepancy brings into question is whether Rodrigues was in the said room at all. In all probability he was not. He was either a fall guy or a patsy in the elaborate cover-up.

It’s not unknown for security police and/or intelligence agencies throughout the world to do this sort of thing. The murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the intelligence agency of Saudi Arabia is the most recent case in point.

It is of vital importance that all the individuals responsible for Timol’s murder be held accountable, irrespective of whether they are alive or dead, and whatever their age.

Greg Nicholson of the Daily Maverick raises a pertinent point: “An estimated 73 activists were killed while in detention during apartheid. The court’s decision on Rodrigues’ application - how it assesses the state’s reluctance to prosecute apartheid cops and its failure to act on the TRC recommendations - will probably set a precedent that will determine whether the families of the dead find justice.”

It is in the public interest that the facts about Timol’s death, as well as the deaths of other detainees, are revealed.

* Dr Salim Essop was a former political detainee and Robben Island prisoner, and is a political scientist who has taught in colleges and universities in Britain and the USA.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.