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Former Security Branch officer called out for being ‘...

South Africa

DEATH IN APARTHEID DETENTION

Former Security Branch officer called out for being ‘untruthful’ at Neil Aggett inquest

Neil Aggett, the South African trade union leader and labour activist who died in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times)

Nearly four decades on, the wheels of justice are slowly grinding forward as the Aggett inquest hears how the right to remain silent is not necessarily a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Week three of the reopened inquest hearings into the deaths of Neil Aggett and Ernest Dipale resume with more ex-Security Branch police officers lined up to testify. 

They take the stand against the backdrop of some clarifications made about a witness’s right to remain silent, limitations of that right and ultimately what charges can be brought against former police officers 39 years after Aggett’s and Dipale’s deaths.

The prescription rule sets a 20-year expiry date on bringing charges on certain crimes. In these inquests, charges of assault, assault to do grievous bodily harm and perjury stemming from the original inquests of 1982 are no longer prosecutable.

But the door for prosecution remains open for charges of murder, torture and perjury in the current hearings and for inducing suicide through pressure and torture during interrogation, individually or as a collective.

The clarification presented by advocate Howard Varney, acting for the Aggett family, came after ex-Security Branch lieutenant Joseph Petrus Woensdregt completed two days of testimony on Tuesday last week. Varney had queried Woensdregt’s right to remain silent from the outset.

Varney said on Thursday: “While a witness enjoys the right to remain silent so as not to incriminate himself, it can’t be used on a willy-nilly basis. There needs to be a genuine and reasonable danger that the question exposes the witness to criminal charges.” 

Woensdregt spent four days on the stand, presenting a curated version of his police career. He told the court he had never tortured, assaulted or abused anyone. Torture and abuse was defined for him as including sleep and food deprivation, using derogatory language and swearing and forcing someone to sit or stand in an awkward position for extended periods of times. 

Woensdregt said he had never covered up a crime or helped colleagues to do so. He said he had never committed perjury and did not know of any colleagues who had done so. He said there was no culture in the Security Branch of closing ranks and protecting each other to the extent of fabricating evidence or failing to report transgressions.

In his version, the notorious “hell” (as described by detainees) of the 10th floor of Johannesburg’s John Vorster Square police station was where people came and went freely and members of the public and family members of officers wandered in and out at will. It was also a floor shared by other police officers, not just Security Branch members. Glass partitioning between offices ensured that “you could see and hear what was going on, it was not like the KGB”, said Woensdregt. 

He testified that he was present during part of the 60-hour interrogation that Aggett was subjected to. Four and a half days after that interrogation, on 5 February 1982, Aggett was found hanging in his cell. 

Woensdregt’s cautious presentation of testimony last week was marked by falling back on his foggy memory and on the post-traumatic stress he suffered that led to him being medically boarded. His answers often drifted on a wayward tangent and at times he was irritable, firing back questions to the court about claims he denied. 

His standard responses, speaking through an interpreter, were: “I am not aware of that”; “I cannot comment on what [someone else] was thinking”; “It could have happened, but I wasn’t involved with that”; or he invoked his right to remain silent on some points, saying he might incriminate himself.

This left discrepancies and contradictions in his testimony that didn’t go unchallenged by Varney, advocate Jabulani Mlotshwa for the National Prosecuting Authority or Judge Motsamai Makume. His testimony was called out for being “untruthful”, “improbable”, “misleading the court” and “evasive”. 

He was questioned on the more than 50 assault cases made against him in his career. He disputed the number, but, when pushed by the judge for the correct number, said he couldn’t remember exactly how many there were.

Judge Makume also questioned why, if by his own admission Woensdregt knew nothing about trade unions, he was part of the three-man team that interrogated Aggett, a medical doctor and trade union organiser, on the night of 30 January.

Woensdregt said his involvement in the interrogation was to bolster his own experience and learning, but he couldn’t say exactly what he had learnt from the experience. 

Woensdregt was asked why if, as he said, Aggett’s interrogation ended at 11pm, they had not returned Aggett to his cell at that time.  

Woensdregt said it was because Aggett was allowed to nap on a camper bed in an office between 11pm and 3am. He said the policemen spent those hours reading over Aggett’s alleged confession. This alleged confession makes up the “mystery four pages” of evidence that apparently held the explosive disclosure that would seal the case for treason that the Security Branch had been working to build.

The four pages have never materialised. 

Mlotshwa put it to Woensdregt that he was just “the strength” of the trio – the muscle used to work over detainees – which he disputed. Mlotshwa asked Woensdregt why he said he couldn’t recall the name of Ernest Dipale, another political detainee held at John Vorster Square. Woensdregt had accompanied Dipale to his home during a late-night trip to Soweto to retrieve travel documents from Dipale’s home after Dipale was arrested. He made specific reference to Dipale and Aggett in his affidavit to support his application for medical boarding. 

Dipale was detained for three days and died on 8 August 1982, found hanging from his cell window. The State’s ruling that Dipale’s death was a suicide is being challenged in these proceedings.

On Friday, Varney ran through a list of eight people who died in detention at John Vorster Square between 1971 and 1990. He asked Woensdregt of his knowledge of the people on the list. Dipale’s and Aggett’s names were known to Woensdregt. Of the others – Wellington Tshazibane, who died in 1976; Elmon Malele, who died in 1977; Matthew Mabalane, who died in 1977; Stanza Bapabe, who died in 1988; and Clayton Sithole, who died in 1990 – he said he knew nothing, or had a passing knowledge, gleaned from newspaper reports.

Woensdregt said he was aware of the case of the first person on Varney’s list – Ahmed Timol who died in 1971. Timol’s death was ruled a suicide and the State rubber-stamped the version that Timol jumped to his death from a 10th-floor window.

Woensdregt said he was aware of the 2017 findings of the reopened inquest. That year, Judge Billy Mothle found that Timol had not committed suicide but was in fact murdered by Security Branch officers. Former Security Branch policeman Joao Rodrigues was charged with Timol’s murder and defeating the ends of justice. Mothle also said Rodrigues’ colleagues Seth Sons and Neville Els should be charged with perjury. Rodrigues, at age 81, continues a legal battle to fight for a permanent stay of prosecution.

It’s the case Woensdregt is most familiar with, and it’s also the case that has shown that truth doesn’t age and the law can eventually catch up. DM  

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