/ 17 August 2021

Inquest magistrate covered up Haffejee killing – lawyer

Ismail Haffejee and Sarah Lall with a portrait of their brother Hoosen Haffejee
Ismail Haffejee and Sarah Lall with a portrait of their brother, Hoosen Haffejee.

The reopened inquest into the death in detention of Dr Hoosen Haffejee in 1977 has heard that the “pliant” magistrate at the original inquest, Trevor Blunden, ignored evidence that he was badly assaulted to exonerate the security police torturers who killed him.

Haffejee, a Pietermartizburg-born dentist, died in detention at the Brighton Beach police station a day after being arrested and interrogated by the Security Branch.

The 26-year-old was found hanged with his trousers from the bars of the police cell where he had been held after hours of interrogation on 3 August, 1977. 

At the inquest held the following year, Blunden “accepted the police version without question, or even raising the slightest concern or apprehension about its improbabilities,” said Howard Varney, counsel for the Haffejee family

He told the renewed inquest in the high court in Pietermaritzburg that medical evidence, witness testimony and expert evidence would show that the police version of events from the time of his arrest were fabricated.

Lieutenant James Taylor and Captain Petrus du Toit, who led Haffejee’s arrest and interrogation, had testified that the more than 50 injuries found by a post-mortem to have been inflicted on his body were the result of his attempts to resist arrest the previous day.

Haffejee was snatched by a Security Branch team while on his way to work at the King George V Hospital in Sydenham, Durban, and taken to Brighton Beach, where he was interrogated in a storeroom before being taken to the cell where his body was found the following morning.

Varney said Blunden was a “pliant magistrate” who was willing to “accommodate” Taylor and Du Toit and was “willing to avert his gaze from logic and the facts”.

Blunden “conducted himself in a manner that was predisposed to a particular result, namely the exoneration of the police from all wrongdoing”.

“He went out of his way to give the police version a veneer of respectability. The magistrate paid little or no regard to the standard of even-handed justice. His manifest bias was plain to see. On this ground alone, the finding of the first inquest warrants overturning,” Varney said.

Varney said the pathologist who examined Haffejee’s body, Professor Isodore Gordon, had also ignored medical evidence in an apparent attempt to assist in the cover-up.

Questions had to be asked as to whether Gordon was “simply incompetent, or whether he too, like magistrate Blunden, was politely averting his gaze”, Varney said.

Security Branch member Mohun Gopal applied for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for assaults on Haffejee and Joseph Mdluli, who also died in detention during the same period. 

Gopal, who told the TRC that Haffejee had been tortured extensively until midnight by Du Toit and Taylor, will give evidence at the inquest later this week. 

Both Du Toit and Taylor are dead.

Varney said if the police and National Prosecuting Authority had complied with their duties under law and the constitution the main perpetrators “could have faced justice in the

years following the winding up of the TRC.”

“The responsible institutions essentially sat on their hands, and pretended the investigations were proceeding, when they were not,” Varney said.

The inquest court will move to the Brighton Beach police station on Wednesday 18 August for an inspection in loco, where expert witnesses are set to reconstruct the death of Haffejee.