The Hawks are investigating three men involved in Ahmed Timol’s death – what does this mean for the suspects?

The Hawks have opened a docket in order to charge former Security Branch members Joao Rodrigues, Neville Els and Seth Sons, all implicated in Ahmed Timol’s 1971 death, with murder, death accessory to murder and perjury. Earlier this year, all three testified at the re-opened inquest into the cause of Timol’s death in detention at John Vorster Square (now Johannesburg Central Police Station).  

In what could be the first prosecution post 1994 of an apartheid-era policeman for the murder of an anti-apartheid activist in detention, Judge Mothle recommended that Rodrigues, Sons and Els be investigated for perjury after he found they had lied under oath.

Originally ruled a suicide by magistrate JJL de Villiers at the 1971 inquest soon after Timol’s death, Judge Billy Mothle presiding over the re-opened inquest, overturned that ruling and found that Timol had been murdered after he was pushed out of a 10th floor window. 

The three men, who did not apply for amnesty before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), are now liable to be prosecuted for their apartheid-era crimes in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act.

Spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Luvuyo Mfaku explains:  “The men did not disclose information fully [at the reopened inquest] and are now susceptible to criminal charges.” 

The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act deals with the powers of the TRC, the granting and rejecting of amnesty as well as relevant penalties for human rights crimes, if necessary. Should the men be found guilty in terms of this Act, they will face a fine or a prison sentence not exceeding two years.. 

In 2003, the NPA created a specialised Priority Crimes Litigation Unit (PCLU) which deals with “matters emanating from the TRC process” such as Timol’s case. When the Hawks’ investigation is complete, their report will be handed to the PCLU for prosecution. 

The last person to see Timol alive, Rodrigues claimed he jumped out of the 10th floor window while Rodrigues was distracted. In his judgement given earlier this month, Judge Mothle suggested the men be investigated for conspiring to cover up Timol’s death. 

While Judge Mothle ruled that Timol was tortured in detention, the three men maintained they were unaware of torture methods being employed by the Security Branch and that Timol had committed suicide.  Els said he worked on the 9th floor of the building and only realised the Security Branch were torturing detainees because of media reports at the time. Else repeatedly claimed he could not remember what occurred.  All three denied any knowledge of torture against anti-apartheid activists. 

Pan African Congress (PAC) National Chairperson, Phillip Dhlamini claims to have also been tortured in John Vorster Square where he was taken in leg-irons. Contrary to three former Security Branch members’ testimonies, Dhlamini says, “I was really tortured - electrical shocks and the money bag method.” 

This method of torture entails dousing a cloth bag with an attached drawstring in water before placing it over the victim’s head and tightening the drawstring around their neck to cut off oxygen. “Then they punch you on your stomach,” adds Dhlamini.

According to Volume Three of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, over 2 900 people reported 5 002 cases of torture between 1060 and 1994.” Many people who were tortured during this time experienced multiple acts of torture. The report adds, “more than 2 000 instances of deliberate methods of torture […] were reported.” 

Should the men be prosecuted it will be the first of its kind and will open doors for more cases like Timol’s to be reopened, such as Matthews Mabelane who was also allegedly pushed from the 10th floor window of John Vorster Square or even Steve Biko. In his judgement Judge Mothle urged the NPA to work harder to bring such cases to light saying, “It should be the task of all branches of the State to begin to develop a culture of intolerance to any form of violation of human rights”. 

-Azarrah Karrim

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