The truth re­mains elu­sive

New court case could at last shed light on ac­tivist’s ‘sui­cide’ while in cus­tody in 1971

CityPress - - News - POLOKO TAU poloko.tau@city­press.co.za

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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PHOTO: AR­CHIVE

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

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