An exhibition depicting the life of Ahmed Timol on display at the Apartheid Museum. Picture: Matthews Baloyi
Johannesburg - At the end of an emotional week at the reopened Ahmed Timol inquest, Yasmin Sooka is adamant that the government needs to fund inquests into apartheid atrocities.

Sooka is the chairperson of the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR), an organisation that played a key role in assisting the Timol family reopen the inquest into the death of the anti-apartheid activist.

Timol’s family reopened the inquest to counter the original inquiry’s findings in June 1972, headed by magistrate JL de Villiers, which stated that the activist had committed suicide by jumping out of the 10th storey of John Vorster Square police station.

The station gained infamy during the apartheid years for the torture and deaths of scores of activists, who opposed the regime. It is now known as the Johannesburg Central police station.

Sooka, who was speaking to The Sunday Independent on the sidelines of the reopened inquest at the high court in Johannesburg on Wednesday, said the government needs to explore hiring retired judges at a special inquest court in order for families of activists who died or went missing in mysterious circumstances to find closure.

“The next case we have is (Dr Neil) Aggett, and we are waiting for the government to communicate with us on (when it will be opened).

Ahmed Timol died in 1971 at the former John Vorster Square police station.

“There are just so many of them. I think it’s about how we can bring closure for families and how we can also turn around these horrible verdicts that people jumped and committed suicide,” she asserted.

Aggett was a physician and trade unionist who worked chiefly in townships and died at John Vorster Square in February 1982 after 70 days of being detained without trial. The apartheid police said he hanged himself.

“Under international law, the State has an obligation to ensure that proper investigations are carried out and, where appropriate, prosecutions follow. In fact, victims and their families have what we call an imprescriptible right to the truth - which means it’s not time-bound,” she said.

Questions sent to the Department of Justice this week about whether the government was willing to assist in reopening inquests went unanswered.

It was an emotional week at the inquest, where testimonies were heard, including from Timol’s brother, Mohammed, and Dr Salim Essop, who was arrested with Timol in October 1971 after they were caught with banned SACP and ANC “propaganda material” in the car in which they were travelling.

Timol died shortly after his arrest.

Essop told the court of the harrowing torture he suffered at the hands of the security police at John Vorster Square.

In a three-day-long testimony, Essop described torture tactics such as his head being put in a black plastic bag until he felt like he “was suffering”, being repeatedly kicked in a method known as “mule kickers” and being shocked electrically, which he said caused him “excruciating pain”.

At the end of his first day of testimony, Essop said: “While it’s not nice to relive a nightmarish experience, it’s good that I can publicly relate what happened to me.”

Mohammed Timol relayed what he called the brutality of apartheid’s policemen.

“The day before they came to inform my mother that Ahmed was dead, my mother asked one of the security policemen in Afrikaans, ‘Please, I want to see my son.’ And the security policeman said, ‘You will not see your son. You did not give him a hiding when he was small - we are now giving him a hiding.’”

Judge Billy Mothle will oversee the reopened inquest, with the final dates expected to be August 10 and 11.

The Sunday Independent