South Africa judge rules police murdered antiapartheid activist in 1971
An anti-apartheid activist who died in custody 46 years ago did not kill himself but was murdered by police officers, a South African court has said, in a historic ruling for campaigners.
The court called for an officer involved in covering up the circumstances of the 1971 death to be investigated as an accessory to murder.
The packed courtroom in Pretoria burst into applause when the judge delivered his ruling on Thursday.
Ahmed Timol, a 29-year-old campaigner against white-minority rule, was arrested in Johannesburg in October 1971. He died after plummeting from the city’s police headquarters five days after his detention.
Officers from the feared security branch that held Timol said at the time he took his own life, a verdict endorsed by an inquest in 1972.
His family, however, fought the ruling for decades and have campaigned hard to secure the legal review, which finally began in June.
“Timol did not jump out of the window but was pushed out of the window or off the roof,” said judge Billy Mothle, reading a summary of his 129-page judgment.
“Members of the security branch … murdered Timol.”
The judge called for the security branch officer Joao Rodrigues, who admitted helping to cover up the murder, to be prosecuted, but he acknowledged that the men actually responsible have since died.
“Most of the main perpetrators have since passed on [but] all security branch officers responsible for guarding and interrogating Timol are collectively responsible for his injuries,” Mothle said.
Members of the South African Communist party present shouted “Viva Ahmed Timol!” as the judge adjourned the hearing and the public gallery burst into applause.
Salim Essop, who was arrested, detained and tortured alongside Timol in 1971, said Mothle had delivered “a fine, a superb judgement”.
“He concluded that the police were responsible for his death … they may not have intended to kill him but they did have the risk of killing him by torturing him and in that respect they were responsible for his murder.”
Mothle called for families who lost relatives in circumstances similar to Timol’s to be assisted in reopening their cases, particularly when suicide was recorded as the cause of death.
George Bizos, an anti-apartheid veteran who was close friends with Nelson Mandela, welcomed the outcome and said the case had exposed how the era had been previously unaccountable.
The judge also praised Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, for successfully reopening the case. “His efforts should be elevated as an example of how citizens should assert their constitutional rights,” Mothle said.
For many, the case has brought back raw memories of apartheid. During the review, the Pretoria court heard from pathologists, former security officers and victims of the era’s brutality.
Their evidence triggered emotional responses in court 2D, including from the family who were present at every hearing.
Imtiaz Cajee, nephew of Ahmed Timol, holds a portrait of his uncle. An inquest in 1972 endorsed police’s assertion that Timol killed himself in police custody.