LEST WE FORGET
Grim parody of justice may finally be drawing to conclusion for Ashley Kriel’s family
NPA renews investigation into MK fighter’s death at hands of apartheid cop.
The drive from Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats to the state mortuary in Salt River is not a long one. But it can be a lonely and tormenting marathon for those making their way there to identify the body of a relative.
The road to justice can be even longer, as the family of slain Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) guerrilla Ashley Kriel can attest. For 35 years his killer has escaped legal liability, but now the National Prosecuting Authority is taking a renewed interest in the case, with an investigator contacting Kriel’s sister Michel Assure last week.
Back in July 1987, Assure was making the grim journey to the mortuary. On such a trip, denial can creep in, becoming a deceptively comfortable companion. She was convinced the South African Police, which had been pursuing her brother, was playing a psychological game with the family.
When Assure was given the news of his death she refused to believe it.
“I went into denial and thought all kinds of crazy things. I thought it was a trick to send me to the mortuary in the hope that when I saw a body, I would be so relieved it wasn’t Ashley that I would disclose his hiding place,” she said in an interview as the 35th anniversary of his death approaches.
“But when I got there, and the body was shown to me, all I could say to the comrade who was with me was: ‘Shame it is him.’ ”
That was her first sight of her 19-year-old brother since he had left home to become a fighter at the tender age of 17.
“He had grown into a strong young man. He still had his dark, curly hair. The sight of him made me strong. I refused to cry. He had a terrible gash on his forehead. They also beat him with a spade,” she said.
A police officer delivered the news of her brother’s death to her. He claimed Kriel had shot himself. The officer said, in Afrikaans, “Julle wil mos nie gehoor het nie [You didn’t want to listen].” His words led her to recall an earlier warning, also spat out in Afrikaans, that “when we find him, we’ll shoot him like a rabbit”.
A visit to the scene of the killing in a house in Hazendal, Athlone an area which once had Trevor Manuel — then a United Democratic Front activist — as a resident, reinforced her belief that her brother was murdered. “It seemed that they had dragged my brother from the kitchen to the bathroom. There were blood splatters on most of the walls.”
A judicial inquest into the killing, held with the air of a cover-up associated with such proceedings after state-sanctioned killings, found that Warrant Officer Jeff Benzien was not legally liable for Ashley’s death.
That finding might have been the end of the matter but for a vicissitude of history. In 1994 democracy arrived, and the new government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gave perpetrators of violence a shot at amnesty on condition that they were honest and could show that they had acted with political intent.
In July 1997, a decade after Kriel had died at his hands, Benzien applied for amnesty for that killing as well as other deeds. He found himself face-to-face with some of the people he had tortured.
Before going into the particulars of his application, he said: “I apologise to any person or persons whom I have harmed and I specifically apologise to the families of Ashley Kriel for the death of their son and brother. Although I deny that I killed him unlawfully and wrongfully, he did however die as a result of an action on my part and for that, I apologise.
“Life is precious and judged ex post facto, and based on today’s political situation of reconciliation, his death was unnecessary.”
On 15 July 1987, he claimed, he and a colleague, Sergeant AD Abels, had been instructed to watch a house in Hazendal to see if Kriel was hiding there. Abels knocked on the front door and a man opened it. Benzien recognised him as Kriel and introduced himself as a member of the South African Police. A struggle ensued, according to him.
During this struggle, Benzien alleged, he saw that Kriel had a gun. However, “I succeeded in getting the firearm from him, loosening it from his grip. It was an automatic pistol and I hit him on the forehead, quite a heavy blow, and this wound bled freely.”
He claimed that the gun went off by accident in his hand during the fight. “I realised that Kriel had been wounded and I noticed blood at his mouth and nose.”
Benzien was given amnesty. However, the Kriel family has rejected his version of events, as has renowned forensic investigator Dr David Klatzow, who has been demanding for more than 30 years that the investigation be reopened.
Two years ago, he wrote that he had given evidence at the inquest. He noted that he had found the size of a bullet hole in Kriel’s tracksuit top to be implausible.
After conducting an experiment with the same weapon and the same type of clothing, Klatzow concluded: “What actually happened was that Kriel was shot from some distance away and Benzien, realising that this would be difficult to explain, pulled up Kriel’s tracksuit top and fired a second shot through the same entrance wound.”
He added: “The take-home message of this whole parody of an inquest was that Ashley Kriel was murdered by Benzien and Abels, and the justice system let him down.”
Now, Benzien may finally have to tell the truth because the National Prosecuting Authority is taking a closer look at the killing. Last week a Cape Town-based investigator was in touch with Assure.
Assure said: “She called to tell me they’re busy with the case.
“There’s some stuff that they need to get from Dr Klatzow.”
Because of past experiences with the NPA, said Assure, the Kriels were careful not to get their hopes too high. In 2015, the NPA approached her but all went quiet until last year, when the NPA contacted her again.
“Getting to the truth behind Ashley’s murder has dragged on for more than 30 years. Maybe I should give up. On the other hand, I’ve decided I’m not going to let anybody or the circumstances run me down. I’ve emerged a stronger person every time I’ve had a disappointment.”
Recalling the TRC amnesty hearings, Assure said she had turned her back on Benzien when he tried to shake her hand: “He had no remorse.”
Recently, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola asked the high court to reopen the inquest into the death of Imam Abdullah Haron, who died in detention in 1969 after being held incommunicado for 122 days.
This newfound vigour in pursuit of the truth of extrajudicial killings by apartheid forces has given hope to the families of those killed.
The late Ivy Kriel, Ashley’s mother, may not be alive to finally hear the truth, but daughters Michel and Melanie may well find some peace at last if the NPA completes its investigation and the Ashley Kriel inquest is redone. DM168
Dennis Cruywagen is the author of Brothers in War and Peace and The Spiritual Mandela. He is a former deputy editor of Pretoria News, as well as the recipient of two Harvard fellowships, a Nieman and a Mason, and holds a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was also an ANC spokesperson.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.
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