It was late October, 1971. In one of the offices on the notorious 10th floor at John Vorster Square, a young woman found herself helplessly standing in a puddle of her own urine with male apartheid security police officers mocking her and laughing at her humiliation. Dr Dilshad Jhetam remembers having electronic pads applied to her shoulder blades and security police sending excruciating and paralysing shocks through her body. She was left literally powerless.
Now, 45 years later, she still asks herself: If she was left that drained and feeble, how could her political activist friend Ahmed Timol, who was 29 at the time, have summoned the strength to jump to his death through a window on the same floor after enduring the same ordeal, if not worse?
Jhetam testified on Friday in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg in an inquest reopened after pressure by Timol’s family. The family brought new information never placed before court during an earlier inquest in 1972. Timol died on October 27, 1971, while being interrogated for his role in the ANC underground movement.
The magistrate at the time accepted the police’s story that Timol committed suicide in detention. But the Timol family have refused to accept this and now want the court to consider additional testimony and new information.
In his opening address to the court, the Timols’ counsel, Howard Varney, said the family wanted to “demonstrate ... that the police did indeed manufacture a version to cover up the truth of what happened to Ahmed Timol”.
Witnesses this week have recalled their horrific ordeals in a bid to prove that Timol could not have had the strength to fling himself out of the window after all the torture he had endured.
Jhetam – a cardiologist – recalled her pain and humiliation: “I needed to relieve myself ... they would not let me. I still feel the pain; I still feel the humiliation ... I still feel awful when I think of urine running down my legs.”
Jhetam is also the only detainee so far to testify about what she heard. Although she could not see Timol in the office next to the one in which she was being tortured, she had heard him scream.
It was in the early hours of the morning on the third day of her continuous interrogation that, all of a sudden, his screaming stopped.
Suddenly, she said, her own interrogation came to an abrupt end and there was “a hive” of activity on the floor with police officers “going up and down”. For the first time she was placed in a cell. She learnt of his death weeks later after inquiring about Timol from one female officer who told her: “The Indian is dead.”
Jhetam concluded that Timol had probably died during his interrogation and that she had probably heard him taking his last breath.
Dr Saleem Essop, who was arrested alongside Timol, was tortured for four days before he slipped into a coma and was taken to hospital. He testified that he too believed that after the horrific experience his friend could not have summoned the energy to throw himself out of the 10th-floor window. Essop testified that among the methods used to torture him was being suffocated with a plastic bag, slapped and kicked.
Asked if he could have taken his life after all that Essop said: “No, I don’t think I would have had the physical capacity at all.”
Jhetam remembered being mocked and laughed at after she wet herself. “Here I was, a decently brought up young lady at medical school and this happened to me. It was humiliating ... they thought this was a huge joke; they mocked and laughed at me.”
Jhetam said the police then brought a jug of water which, every now and then, she was forced to finish. She ended up “standing in a puddle of my own urine”.
While Jhetam was being tortured in the office next to where Timol was being held, Timol’s younger brother Mohammad was going through the same experience in Durban. Mohammad testified on Thursday that he was surprised when his interrogation and torture suddenly stopped and he was offered a cup of tea and some food after spending the whole day without any. Shortly afterwards he was told his brother was dead and that he would not be allowed to attend his burial.
The inquest is expected to continue later this month. At least three police officers who were involved in Timol’s detention have been subpoenaed to appear in court, and are expected to testify.
HIDDEN HISTORY MK activist Ahmed Timol fell to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square. The state has reopened the inquest into the circumstances of his death