Judgment looms for apartheid cops at Timol inquest

At the Ahmed Timol inquest, Judge Billy Mothle’s robes are bright red — a colour reserved for criminal cases. The inquest into Timol’s death is not yet being treated as a criminal matter, but the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Timol family want the judge to declare the struggle activist’s death a murder.

Timol was a member of the South African Communist Party and the ANC. The police maintain his 1971 death — he fell from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square — was a suicide, but the family believes he was killed.

Mothle is a man with a poker face. At times he has looked on in concentration, seldom smiling but hardly angry either. But he has moments of humour.

The case before him is significant and in the coming months he will present his findings.

Throughout the inquest, Mothle has homed in on the former members of the apartheid-era police, vigorously questioning them. On Thursday, when advocate Stephanus Coetzee, representing the police, made his closing arguments, Mothle interjected.

The judge wanted to know how he should consider the controversial evidence provided by Joao Rodrigues, the Security Branch clerk who was allegedly with Timol in his final moments. Mothle suggested that parts of Rodrigues’s testimony were unreliable, but Coetzee said the witness had considered his choices in appearing before the court. “And he chose to lie,” was Mothle’s response.

The Timol family is pursuing charges of murder or accessory to murder after the fact against Rodrigues because they believe he helped to orchestrate a cover-up of Timol’s death, even during the current inquest.

Mothle’s job is difficult. It’s been 46 years since Timol died. In that time, close to 700 pages of the original inquest have gone missing, mostly relating to evidence given by the apartheid police.

“I find it strange that only the evidence of the police should disappear,” Mothle commented.

When he asked Torie Pretorius, representing the NPA, about a remedy, the advocate said magistrate JL de Villiers had summarised the police statements in his findings in the first inquest in 1972.

This inquest has also produced about 1 000 new documents, for which advocate Howard Varney, for the Timol family, good-humouredly apologised.

“My lord, we regret that we’ve drowned you in paperwork,” Varney said.

“You certainly did,” Mothle smiled.

In terms of the Inquest Act, Mothle will have to determine the circumstances around Timol’s final moments and if anyone will be held responsible. “If a detainee is in the care of the police, then the police should be responsible for their wellbeing,” Mothle said on Thursday.

Varney and Pretorius argued that the case should be presented to the NPA for prosecution. Varney told the court that the police have said they were caring and never assaulted Timol. “It’s a version that would be laughable if it was not so tragic,” he said.

Coetzee conceded that he could not refute Timol had been assaulted during his detention — a finding that was never made in the first inquest. And Mothle made it clear that this inquest’s findings would be different.

“On the question of assault, I’m not going to speculate. The evidence is clear,” Mothle said.

The judge will grapple with new evidence that has emerged, including testimony of two medical pathologists that contradicts the police witnesses.

Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, said the judge was an example for the way in which future inquests should proceed.

“He was fair, he was patient, he gave witnesses ample time,” he said.

But for now, everyone will wait. 

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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