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Day of the gallows

The government faces unprecedented pressure from all sides to halt the death sentence – from left and right, from the international community as well as potential voters – after a day of major developments around the issue. 

In the last 24 hours

  • Mass murderer Barend Strydom received eight death sentences. This creates a critical question for the state president: has he the political will to hang Strydom and face the possibility of creating a martyr and rallying point for the far rightwing 
  •  In the “Upington 26″ trial, the judge effectively sentenced 14 of the accused to death for their ”common purpose” involvement in a necklacing. This sets the stage for an international outcry along the lines of the Sharpeville Six case. 
  • Three men, including one political prisoner, were executed in Pretoria, bringing the hangman’s tally to five this week and 26 this year.
  • Five people on death row were released by court order, and four were immediately re-arrested and taken to court to be retried. A sixth person facing the noose was released by the court – but had already died of TB in prison. 

The combination of a rightwing outcry over Strydom and a leftwing outcry over the Upington 26 – reverberating through Pretoria’s international relations and influencing voters in the forthcoming election -is likely to cause severe headaches for the state president, who will have to decide whether to al low them to hang. There are already signs of the ultra-rightwing rallying around Strydom. There has been an outbreak of threats from the Wit Wolwe, the organisation Strydom purported to represent. 

And yesterday Weekly Mail was handed a letter signed by “Die Jeug van die Boervolk” and giving an Al¬berton address. The letter called Strydom “the first major martyr of the third freedom war … he offers his, life as a call to his people to the struggle.” The Upington trial received little local coverage, but drew the attention of diplomats and the international me¬dia. The judge yesterday found there were no extenuating circumstances for 14 of the accused, effectively sentencing them to hang. Chaos erupted in court when the judge announced he wanted to sentence the 14 this morning and threw out defence requests for a postponement “on humanitarian grounds” to allow families to be present. This is a court case, it is not a funeral … what is the point of (delaying) it,” the judge said. The accused broke into song, police tried to force them into the cells and scuffles broke out. 

Police chased family and friends from the public benches and ordered reporters to leave. (See Page 2) Lawyers for Human Rights’ national directorate in Pretoria, which has played a leading role in exposing and organising against South Africa’s prolific use of capital punishment, issued a statement saying the Strydom death penalties “add further impetus to our campaign”. And the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in South Africa said it did not believe Strydom should hang, “no matter how reprehensible his crime was”. This week’s executions took place on two separate occasions.

On Wednesday, Anton Koen and James Henry Cohen, both convicted of common law murder, were taken to the gallows. Cohen had rejected all offers of legal intercession on his behalf, and though scheduled for execution on Thursday, requested that his hanging date be brought forward. On Thursday, Simon Mbatha, Abraham Mngomezulu and Patrick Mbatha were executed after clemency petitions had failed. Mngomezulu was sentenced to death on grounds of common purpose, for killing a suspected police informer in Naledi in April 1987. The other two were sentenced for non-political crimes. 

Tuesday night saw a dramatic conclusion to last-minute attempts by LHR activists to obtain stays of execution for Sibusiso Sanele Masuku and Oupa Josias Mbonane, convicted together of killing a policeman in Shoshanguve in February 1986. Earlier on Tuesday, an urgent supreme court application brought in Pretoria failed. In this application  LHR had presented fresh evidence, questioning Masuku’s participation in the crime; a state witness who had  identified Masuku during the trial had submitted an affadavit admitting that she had been lying.

Finally, on Tuesday night, an advocate, delegated by LHR, obtained a s 30-day stay of execution from Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee – after the condemned men had already been s served the ceremonial last meal of a whole chicken, or alternatively, a t large piece of pork. There was further cause for jubilation this week among opponents of the death penalty when, in two separate cases, Xolani Stuurman, convicted in connection with a “necklacing” in Uitenhage, and the “Queenstown Five” were set unconditionally free after months of awaiting execution. (See Page 2) 

Stuurman was released after a successful appeal. The “Queenstown Five” – the “Queenstown Six” until one of their number, Wantu Silinga, died of tuberculosis in prison – were also convicted in terms of the common purpose doctrine in connection ‘ with a “necklace” murder; their conviction was set aside on a legal technicality. However, as they were leav¬ing Pretoria Central Prison, they were rearrested. (See Page 2) On Thursday, eight people, some of whom were relatives of condemned prisoners on death row, were arrested after an early morning protest outside Pretoria Central Prison. They were released later in the day on R300 bail, after a trial date had been set for later this month.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian

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