Pardons ruling a measure of comfort

At a press conference held in Cape Town yesterday, families of the victims of the 1996 Worcester bombing, in which six people died and 65 were injured, expressed their satisfaction with a court ruling preventing the president from pardoning perpetrators of political crimes without their input, and expunging their records.

Judge Willie Seriti last week issued an interim interdict preventing the president from issuing pardons in terms of the “special dispensation for political offenses” until the proceedings in the case have been finalised.

The case was brought forward over a year ago by a coalition of NGOs representing the victims’ families. In a surreal turn of events, the case saw Jan van der Westhuizen, one of the men convicted for the bombing, challenging the application alongside the president.

The families present also spoke about the pain the perpetrators had put them through. “Nothing can bring back my child,” said Nomatyala Busakwe, whose daughter Sweetie died of injuries sustained in the bombing. “I know the Bible says we must forgive people, but I can’t find it in my heart to forgive him [Van der Westhuizen]. He must serve his full sentence.”

In his judgement, Seriti said: “The practical effect of a parole and pardon are the same. I cannot find any justification for allowing victims of crime to be heard prior to a prisoner being released on parole, but to deny the same right to a victim in the case of a pardon.”

Comfort Ero, director of the South Africa office of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, said the decision was a reminder that transitional justice demands the truth be heard and that the rule of law be observed.

She said many issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were never finalised and that the case highlighted that government was not eager to deal with the consequences thereof, be they reparations or prosecutions.

Marjorie Jobson, national director of the Khulumani Support Group, said she welcomed the ruling as it recognised the rights of the victims. Jobson said trying to secure a “sense of justice” for the victims is one of the major challenges of transitional justice.

The court also ordered the president and minister of justice to provide the applicants with a list of prisoners recommended for release by the pardons reference group.

Jobson said once the coalition received the list of prisoners being considered for pardons, the next step would be to arrange representation for the victims and to begin taking testimony from them. “Now we can build solid arguments based on actual cases,” she said.

Hugo van der Merwe, transitional justice programme manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said the ruling was “precedent setting” and could affect the way pardons are dealt with in future.

“The question now is whether the state is going to pursue it or whether the president is willing to discuss how to make the presidential pardon process more transparent,” said Van der Merwe.

If the president chooses to pursue the case, a protracted court battle could follow.

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