Almost 47 years after the killing of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, a former Security Branch officer was in court on Monday charged with his murder. The NPA says it's the first of many apartheid-era cases to come.
The case against 79-year-old Joao Rodrigues was delayed on Monday as his defence team worried he could not climb the steps from the cells in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court.
“We’ve waited 47 years. We can wait a few more hours,” said Imtiaz Cajee, who has fought for justice for his uncle Ahmed Timol, the anti-apartheid activist murdered by police in 1971.
Rodrigues, a former Security Branch policeman, is charged with murder and defeating the ends of justice. He was released on R2,000 bail on Monday after handing himself over at the Johannesburg Central Police Station in the morning, the same site where Timol was pushed from the 10th floor.
Leaning on a crutch and wearing socks and sandals, he appeared relaxed and smiled for photos before prosecutors outlined the case against him.
Murder is a Section 6 offence, meaning the onus is on the defence to explain why bail should be granted. Prosecutors agreed with the defence that he should be released on bail as he has no passport, has lived in the same house for over 50 years, and due to his advanced age.
Rodrigues has one previous conviction for perjury. The case will proceed on 18 September in the South Gauteng High Court.
“I’m no longer a young man and have no desire to spend my days as a fugitive from the law,” he said in an affidavit read out by his lawyers. He repeated that he has co-operated with investigators and gave evidence in the reopened inquest into Timol’s death in 2017.
In that inquest, Judge Billy Mothle said there were prima facie cases of murder against Security Branch officers Captain Johannes van Niekerk and Captain Johannes Gloy. Van Niekerk died in 2006 and Gloy in 2012.
The new inquest overturned the 1972 inquest’s finding that Timol, who was 29 years old at the time of his death, committed suicide.
Timol was arrested after police found banned SACP leaflets in a car he was driving in with fellow activist Salim Essop. He was extensively tortured before he was pushed to his death.
Rodrigues’s lawyer said the murder charge was “interesting” in light of the inquest’s findings. In October 2017, Mothle ruled: “Rodrigues, on his own version, participated in the cover-up to conceal the crime of murder as an accessory after the fact, and went on to commit perjury by presenting contradictory evidence before the 1972 and 2017 inquests. He should accordingly be investigated with a view to his prosecution.”
Cajee said he had mixed emotions on the case. Seeing Rodrigues in the dock gave him hope in the justice system. “This is what the new democracy is all about,” he said.
Rodrigues, however, is just one of many apartheid officers who should face charges and there are many other families who don’t know who their activist relatives were killed and who have not found justice.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) heard that at least 73 political detainees died in police detention between 1963 and 1990.
“We should definitely not forget that the story of Ahmed Timol is only one,” said Cajee, listing other activists who died in detention.
“We are happy that we will be able to get to the heart of the matter. It’s important for people like Rodrigues to disclose what happened as opposed to the inquests.”
NPA spokesperson Phindi Louw-Mjonondwane said prosecutors are willing to “go the extra mile” to prosecute apartheid-era crimes. They have been very reluctant to do so in the past and the Timol inquest was only reopened after a long struggle by his family.
Louw-Mjonondwane said the case has led to many others being lodged with the NPA. She said prosecutors are investigating them and more arrests are on the way.
Gauteng Education MEC and ANC provincial Deputy Chairperson Panyazi Lesufi attended Monday’s court hearing. “It’s a bitter-sweet moment,” he said.
He called Rodrigues a “small fish” and said more senior perpetrators of apartheid crimes did not apply for amnesty at the TRC but are yet to be held accountable.
“We are hopeful one day that a bigger fish will come here,” said Lesufi. “This process is bringing that glimmer of hope.”
“It must be a process that bites and bites the right people,” the MEC added.
He said how Rodrigues’s case was handled highlights the differences between the apartheid and democratic systems. While Rodrigues was granted bail, anti-apartheid activists were arbitrarily arrested, often without trial. DM
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