DEATH IN DETENTION
After 54 years, Imam Abdullah Haron’s family hears the truth behind activist’s death at hands of apartheid police
Fifty-four years after his death in detention, a judge has confirmed what the family of Imam Abdullah Haron always knew — Haron was tortured and murdered by members of the apartheid Security Branch.
The Muslim cleric and anti-apartheid activist Imam Abdullah Haron died a brutal death at the hands of the Security Branch during his incarceration in September 1969.
He was repeatedly punched and kicked with booted feet on his chest. He was prodded or pressed with either knuckles, the point of a truncheon or a similar object while standing against and facing a wall or lying on his stomach, and was repeatedly hit with a truncheon or similar object on his thighs from the front, back and sides.
These were some of the findings made by Judge Daniel Thulare on Monday, 9 October, in the Western Cape Division of the High Court at the reopened inquest into Haron’s death.
Judge Thulare set aside the March 1970 inquest’s findings, in which magistrate JSP Kuhn stated that Haron’s death was caused by an accidental fall down a flight of stone stairs and an associated heart attack.
Judge Thulare said, “The cause of Imam Abdullah [Haron’s death] is attributable to the accumulative effect of injuries under torture … with the possibility of a pre-existing coronary [condition] as a contributing factor.
“The Security Branch of the South African Police are held responsible for the acts and omissions leading directly to the death of Imam Abdullah Haron.”
An emotional day for the family
Haron’s family, friends and comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle never accepted the findings of the 1970 inquest.
It was an emotional day for family members, including Haron’s youngest daughter, Professor Fatima Haron-Masoet, and his only son, Professor Muhammed Haron. Tears rolled down their cheeks when Judge Thulare delivered some of his findings.
Haron-Masoet told Daily Maverick she had waited all her life for the cause of her father’s death to be revealed. She said she was glad the truth had finally come out.
“We always knew that our father never died of a heart attack because he fell down a few steps. The judgment gave hope, not just to ourselves but to all the apartheid family victims that were waiting in the shadows for their case to be heard.”
Welcoming the finding, her brother said it could never bring full closure to the family. He said they only had partial closure as the perpetrators had died.
“All those involved in the 1970 inquest are no (longer) around. No family that has encountered this particular situation would ever have full closure. The State is partly responsible because they have dragged their feet in terms of opening this inquest. They cannot simply cast blame on someone else.
“I knew that members of the Security Branch were always … guilty, but they never admitted to their guilt.”
Haron was arrested by Detective Sergeant Johannes Petrus Francois van Wyk, also known as Spyker, on 28 May 1969 at around 10 or 11am. He was interrogated by Van Wyk, Major Dirk Kotze, Lieutenant Colonel Carel Preysen Pienaar and Captain Ebanis Jogiemus Johannes Geldenhuys. Van Wyk and Kotze were in charge of the interrogations.
After Haron died, his cell was cleaned. Members of the Security Branch who tortured Haron gave evidence during the 1970 inquest that his cell was scrubbed and cleaned regularly as a routine procedure.
Judge Thulare said this had not been corroborated by anyone and was clearly a fabrication.
“Between 26 and 27 September 1969, the cell in which the Imam was … detained was not innocently scrubbed and cleaned. The cell was scrubbed and cleaned after the Security Branch and the Maitland police realised that the Imam had died.
“The scrubbing and cleaning of the cell in which the Imam died was a deliberate act calculated to destroy any evidence that could help any honest medical doctor or observant investigator to determine the cause of death. It was intended to cover up evidence that could point to the true cause of the death of the Imam,” Judge Thulare found.
In the original inquest, Dr Theodore Gottfried Schwär, the head of pathology services at the state pathology laboratory in Cape Town, said that the bruises on Haron’s body were not severe.
Giving evidence at the reopened inquest, Dr Ramalu Naidoo, a registered specialist forensic pathologist and member of the Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians in London, found that the 12 green-yellow bruises on Haron’s body, together with multiple bruises on the lower chest wall, including a fractured rib, were all indicative of significant traumatic physical injury.
Constable Johannes Hendrik Hanekom Burger, the only surviving member of the police associated with the death, testified at the reopened inquest. His duties included letting Haron out of his cell to walk in the courtyard.
On seeing the postmortem pictures of Haron’s injuries, he described the bruises as similar to those he had received as a result of being kicked, stamped on and punched when playing rugby. While Burger said he was sorry for Haron’s family, he was accused of being evasive during the inquest.
Judge Thulare said Haron was denied proper medical attention after he complained of chest pains from July 1969 and then stomach pains and headaches in September.
“From 20 September, whilst the Imam suffered multiple pains, he was never properly, adequately and truthfully medically examined by a medical practitioner,” the judge said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Not accidental – Activist Imam Haron died after being tortured by police, reopened inquest finds
While the Security Branch members found to be primarily responsible for Haron’s death have all died, Thulare found that Burger was untruthful during his testimony and recommended the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) look into prosecuting him.
“Burger’s version that the Imam was that morning seemingly healthy and walked without any difficulty and that at exercise time the Imam just stood in front of the cell door is rejected. Burger’s version that the Imam had no complaints that morning is false.
“On Burger’s own version, the Imam complained of stomach pain. It is sad that Burger tried to shift the responsibility for the failure to provide the Imam with medical attention to the Imam himself, by suggesting that it was the Imam who did not want to see a doctor in his obvious hour of need, but only needed painkillers and toilet paper.
“The evidence that during that time of pain, the Imam would have had time to change from sleeping clothes to normal clothes, and back to sleeping clothes the same morning showed how low Burger was prepared to stoop to create the impression of a healthy Imam, when the true facts, which were known to him, showed otherwise,” Judge Thulare said.
Hope for similar cases
The Imam of the Claremont Mosque, Rashied Omar, said the finding was a huge win for the Haron family who had for 54 years suffered from the lie that their father had died as a result of a fall from a flight of stairs when they knew he had been tortured to death.
“It is our earnest prayer that it may provide a little bit of healing from their suffering, but most of all it will open up the way for many others, families who, like the Haron family have been sold a lie as to why their loved ones died in police custody,” he said.
Author and award-winning journalist Zubeida Jaffer said, “Many people feel that it has taken so long for this. There is a bit of a damper in that sense. But, at the same time, it was very gratifying for me to hear that it was finally officially announced that the lies that we were being told were not true.”
Jaffer played a pivotal role in the Struggle movement in the Western Cape during apartheid and was repeatedly detained, held in solitary confinement, tortured and beaten. She said it was crucial to hear Van Wyk declared responsible for Haron’s murder, saying that she and many others had been tortured by him.
“So this was a great day for us in the sense that it is on record that he did these evil things and this will never be forgotten. At the same time, one could say that it’s a little too late, but it is also what the family wanted and what they achieved, and in that sense they considered it to be a day of great celebration,” Jaffer said.
NPA welcomes finding
The NPA Western Cape spokesperson, Eric Ntabazalila, said the Western Cape Director of Public Prosecutions, advocate Nicolette Bell, welcomed the finding, which stemmed from the NPA’s commitment to pursuing priority Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) cases.
“Sixteen prosecutors and 39 DPCI [Department for Priority Crime Investigation] investigators have been appointed within the various divisions to deal exclusively with TRC matters, to work with families, and to investigate cases, inter alia, of murder, torture and disappearances.
“Presently, there are 135 matters under investigation. In some cases, prosecutions have begun. In others, inquests are being held or even reheld to establish the circumstances of, and responsibility for, these deaths. The effluxion of time poses many challenges in the investigation of these matters. But time is not on our side, and we must continue to strive for justice,” he said. DM