South African hard-line apartheid-era minister of law and order Adriaan Vlok and four co-accused received suspended sentences on Friday after pleading guilty to attempting to murder a leading black activist cleric in 1989.
Vlok and his former police chief, Johann van der Merwe, were given 10-year prison sentences, suspended for five years, in a case that has rekindled debate about justice and retribution in a country still dealing with the scars of white rule.
State advocate Anton Ackermann stressed the case, which comes 13 years after apartheid fell, was not driven by revenge and said that was reflected by the sentence, which came after Vlok and his co-accused struck a plea bargain.
”This is not a Nuremberg trial,” he said referring to the 1940s trial of Nazi war criminals. ”This case is not about retribution, even less has this case been motivated by revenge.” Three former high-ranking police officers were given five-year terms, suspended for four years.
All the accused had pleaded guilty to attempting to murder anti-apartheid activist Frank Chikane, now adviser to President Thabo Mbeki, by lacing his underwear with poison. The poison attacked his nervous system, making him violently ill.
Ackermann told the court a plea bargain had been reached under which charges of conspiracy to murder were withdrawn.
Vlok last year washed Chikane’s feet in an act of contrition — a hugely symbolic act in a country where many people count themselves as devout Christians, and where the wounds of the recent past remain raw. Chikane was present in court when the men pleaded guilty.
‘We want justice’
Protesters outside the Pretoria High Court demanded Vlok be prosecuted for other abuses when he was in charge of police during apartheid, the race-based political system under which South Africa was governed from 1948 to 1994.
”We want justice to be done to these guys … We suffered a lot [and] people were shot and killed by police at that time,” Lenni Makhiwame said ahead of the sentencing.
But Chikane, who attended the court hearing, said he hoped the case would help South Africa with reconciliation, rather than reopen old wounds.
”I’m pleased this thing is over and we can move forward and whatever happened today will be used to resolve all the outstanding issues,” Chikane told reporters outside the court.
Friday’s trial was widely seen as a test case for the prosecution of apartheid-era officials who were not granted an amnesty by the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Only a handful of cases have come to trial since 2003, when the TRC — headed by Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu — ended its probe into crimes committed under apartheid.
Vlok was the only apartheid-era minister to appear before the commission, and received an amnesty for a series of bombings.
The commission granted an amnesty to those who admitted their crimes. Cases of murder, torture or disappearances in which the accused did not agree to appear before the commission, or where amnesty was not granted, were meant to go to court if sufficient evidence was found.
In a statement released at their trial on Friday, the five said the bitterness of the past still persisted and the divide between various communities was ever-increasing.
”Any person who does not recognise this is living in a fool’s paradise and has lost touch with reality.”
They said the solution was ”appallingly uncomplicated”.
”Simply apply the same requirements to qualify for amnesty that are applicable to members of the ANC and other organisations to ex-members of the security forces.
”Then come to an agreement that members of the national executive committee of the ANC and other political leaders will not be prosecuted in respect of incidents where amnesty has already been granted to other members of the ANC or other organisations.”
They said the composition of the majority of the TRC’s amnesty committees favoured the ANC.
They further criticised the fact that the ANC’s General Siphiwe Nyanda had been granted amnesty for incidents, including landmines, having not made a full disclosure as was required.
They also called on the state not to prosecute General Basie Smit, whom they would be obliged to give evidence against should he be prosecuted.
”We would, however, like to emphasise that during the episode in question, General Smit had very recently taken over command of the security branch, having been transferred from the detective branch.
”He found himself in an unfamiliar environment and culture and would have experienced difficulty in distinguishing between lawful powers and powers that, during the prevailing abnormal circumstances in the country, were emphatically or tactically implied by a higher authority.”
They said that should his complicity be revealed, it would at most, be that of messenger. — Reuters, Sapa