Maverick Citizen

DEATH IN APARTHEID DETENTION

Private investigator tells inquest: Investigations into Neil Aggett’s death were a sham

Private investigator tells inquest: Investigations into Neil Aggett’s death were a sham
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)

At the final stretch of the hearings into the reopened inquest into Neil Aggett’s death, a seasoned private investigator lays out his findings on why he believes Neil Aggett’s death was a cover-up by Security Branch members.

Worms were clearly spilling from the can when private investigator Frank Dutton came to the conclusion in 2015 that there was enough evidence to push for reopening the 1982 inquest into Neil Aggett’s death in detention. 

On Thursday and Friday last week Dutton put his findings before the reopened inquest hearings. He was unequivocal: investigations into Aggett’s death were a sham. 

He said he believed there were two possible reasons why Aggett was found hanging in his cell. Dutton said the apparent suicide was either to cover up the ill treatment of Aggett “to prevent conclusion that they drove him to suicide, or simply that he murdered by Security Branch members.” 

He spent his time on the stand clearly setting out shortcomings in the investigation into Aggett’s death; the conspiracies of silence, cover-ups and intimidation that defined security branch culture; and the political climate of apartheid South African in the late 1970s and 1980s that was the stifling backdrop against which events unfolded. 

Dutton is an ex-cop with 38 years’ experience. He left the police in 1996 but continued to work as a private investigator eventually became the head of the Scorpions, South Africa’s elite investigations unit. The unit was subsequently disbanded and replaced by the Hawks. By the early 2000s Dutton’s work included investigating international war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and other violent atrocities for the United Nations. 

It was in 2015 that Dutton was approached by the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa to do the groundwork into the feasibility of reopening the Aggett case, one of around 300 inquest cases handed over to the National Prosecuting Authority in 2003 already for further investigation.

One of the first red flags for him was discrepancies and selective omissions from amnesty applications by some Security Branch cops. In the Aggett case, Dutton saw that Security Branch officers gave evidence saying they treated Aggett “very well and that he was unharmed” but policemen like Roelof Venter and William Smith were repeatedly identified by other detainees held at the same time as the men who tortured and assaulted them. Both made applications to the TRC for amnesty but omitted information about certain assaults.  

“Cleary that evidence was false,” Dutton said. He added: “I have a background in understanding how the Security Branch operated [having worked on the Trust Feed Massacre 1988 and for investigations the Harms Commission 1990, and other cases], they would have no qualms in providing false evidence for judicial inquiries to cover their misdeeds.”

Dutton painted the picture of a paranoid Security Branch, emboldened as a kind of chosen force carrying out the apartheid government’s “Total National Strategy” that gave them justification to step beyond boundaries of the law if it was to combat perceived enemies of state.

At the same time, Dutton said the apartheid government was under scrutiny for deaths in detention and already with Steve Biko’s death in 1977, cost the apartheid government in the form of a UN arms embargo. Aggett’s death invited more of the wrong kind of international attention.

“The police officers who were selected for the Security Branch were particularly right-wing oriented and pro-government,” Dutton said. 

Add to this was a tainted chain of command at the time tangled up in what Dutton has called a “conspiracy of silence” and blind loyalty. Dutton said this would thwart any chance of an independent investigation into Aggett’s death.

Brigadier Hennie Muller was head of the Security Branch. It was under his watch that Brigadier Theunis Swanepoel known as “Roos Rus” (Red Russian) interrogated Suliman “Babla” Saloojee. It ended with Saloojee’s death when he fell from the seventh-floor window in September 1964 from the Gray’s Building that was the headquarters of the police’s Special Branch. It was ruled a suicide. Dutton said Muller authorised the arrest of Aggett as well as illegal activities like bombings – false flag operations that would form part of a violent propaganda plan. He also gave the green light for Aggett’s parents’ home to be illegally searched supposedly to search for evidence of Aggett’s suicidal tendencies.

There was also Lieutenant Steven Whitehead. He was one of Aggett’s chief interrogators. Dutton agreed with advocate Howard Varney’s description of Whitehead as having an “obsession with Dr Neil Aggett, intent on using him to make a name for himself” and that Whitehead was especially brazen as his father was a brigadier and divisional commander also based at John Vorster Square, the lawyer for the Aggett family added. 

The investigator into Aggett’s death was Captain Carel Victor. He was from the John Vorster Square detective branch. Too close to his 10th-floor colleagues, Dutton said. He added that it was “highly suspicious” that when he wrapped up the case Victor transferred to the Security Branch.

Dutton said policemen would “as common practice” get together to discuss how to handle a complaint, also when they killed a detainee, like in the death of activist Stanza Bopape in 1988. Bopape died from a heart attack during interrogation when he was tortured and given electric shocks. Dutton said when the police realised they had killed him the cooked up an elaborate cover-up. First senior police were called in – meaning top brass had full knowledge of what was happening. Bopape’s body was dumped in a crocodile-infested river in Mpumalanga. The official line, however, was that the police were transporting him somewhere and when they made a stop Bopape managed to escape. Dutton said: “They went to great lengths to cover-up what happened including keeping his shoes, which one of the policemen walked in to give the dog unit a scent to follow.”

Focusing on the processing of evidence at the death scene of Aggett’s cell, Dutton picked apart the shoddy police work. Forensic specialists testified last year to the same conclusions, but Dutton summed up key shortcomings. It’s that only four photographs made it into evidence of the cell at the time of Aggett’s body being discovered. Dutton says this means the scene cannot be recreated and there is no way to corroborate things like the cell inventory. 

The scene was not sealed, allowing potential suspects like Whitehead and Captain Andries Struwig into the space. From notes made about the bars where Aggett was found hanged Dutton said the bars could have been wiped clean. The register for police cell visits also included false entries, he found. 

More gaps, he said, was there are no witness reports taken from other detainees and other police officer in the building. There was also no pathologist at the death scene. Furthermore, the so-called four pages detailing the incriminating confession that Aggett apparently made have never produced, not even in highly redacted form. There was also no disciplinary action or investigations into who messed up and why no records of cell rounds done at the time of Aggett’s death or why contraband was allowed in Aggett’s cell – most noticeably the kikoi that he was found hanged by. 

Dutton also testified that he believes that Aggett’s complaint filed with Sergeant Aletta Blom 15 hours before his death was “a lucid complaint and he had an active role in making that complaint. He was not laid back about and it was certainly not the sign of a man who had given up.” 

He added: “I can’t accept the police’s doubtful version of suicide that because Dr Aggett had betrayed certain people. When you look a little deeper you can see that this is far-fetched.” DM

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