The truth remains elusive
New court case could at last shed light on activist’s ‘suicide’ while in custody in 1971
More questions than answers came out of testimonies by witnesses this week that strongly opposed any suggestion that struggle activist Ahmed Timol took a suicidal plunge from the 10th floor of a police building in 1971. Friday marked the 10th day of an inquest into Timol’s death while in police custody. Timol was arrested at a roadblock and, like many political detainees, was tortured, assaulted and deprived of sleep during interrogation for his anti-apartheid activities and links to the banned SA Communist Party.
While many of his fellow detainees left jail with injuries, some so serious that they were taken straight to hospital, Timol never lived to tell his side of the story.
Held at the Pretoria High Court, this week’s inquest heard testimonies seeking to discredit the apartheid police’s version that Timol had jumped to his death from Room 1026 on the 10th floor of the notorious John Vorster Square, known today as the Johannesburg Central Police Station.
After 45 years, witnesses tried to relive some of what happened to Timol on that day. One witness testified that he saw a body flying down past a window, but when he looked outside, he could see no open windows at any of the floors above. Others testified to how poorly the police handled the scene. The court heard testimonies that raised questions that can only be answered by those implicated.
On Friday, aeronautical engineer Thivash Moodley presented scenarios crafted after listening to a number of versions by witnesses. He said that without a push by someone, “Timol would have landed much closer to the building”. This scenario raised the possibility that Timol was indeed pushed through the window.
“Instead of using legs to propel himself, hands would have been used to propel his body ... I don’t believe he would be able to move his hands as much as somebody who had free hands to be able to thrust him; it would be a full extension of one’s arms (sic),” Moodley explained.
Frank Dutton, a private investigator hired by the Timol family, probed the circumstances around his death. He told the court this week that details surrounding the young activist’s death as presented by the apartheid police and later accepted by the inquest court were a “cover-up of the truth”.
He said internal processes were not followed, lots of things were disregarded and there was no inquiry within the police “because this was part of a cover-up”. Dutton said this was also the reason key witnesses, including black police officers who worked on the 10th floor, were not interviewed.
He said the “departmental investigation should have looked to see that all police instructions were obeyed, the standard operating procedures were [followed]; whether Timol was restrained, whether there were sufficient guards guarding him...”. He said if things had been done properly, some officers would have had disciplinary steps taken against them.
Dutton questioned why Timol’s body was moved just minutes after he had fallen. He said police did not mark the spot where he landed and take pictures of the body while in that landing position.
Another witness, forensic pathologist Steve Naidoo, who looked into the 1971 postmortem report, told the court this week that he believed Timol “was alive but for a minimal period” and that out of about 35 injuries recorded in the report, only 10 could be linked to the fall.
Ernie Matthis, a retired state advocate, told the court earlier in the week that he was on one of the lower floors beneath the 10th floor when he saw a body fall. He rushed to the window to see where the body had landed and immediately looked up to investigate where it could have been coming from, but saw no window open.
This is the second inquest after the first that was conducted in 1972. Magistrate JL de Villiers accepted that Timol’s death was a suicide and little was looked into in terms of his torture and assault while in custody. Timol is the 22nd person to die out of 73 political detainees who lost their lives while in police custody between 1963 and 1990. After failing to find any closure at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and after years of research and lining up witnesses, Timol’s family approached the court in a bid to get the 1972 inquest judgment rescinded. None of the police officers linked to the death or Timol’s interrogation appeared before the TRC.
With so much already heard from a pack of witnesses, it remains to be seen what police witnesses will say this week. One of the former apartheid police sergeants, Joao Rodriguez, who was in Room 1026 when Timol allegedly jumped through the window, is scheduled to testify on Monday or Tuesday.
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MURDERED? Ahmed Timol, a 29-year-old Roodepoort teacher and anti-apartheid activist who ‘fell’ from the 10th floor of a police building in Johannesburg in 1971