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4 Decades Later, South African Court Rules That Activist Was Murdered

Former anti-apartheid activist Mohamed Timol, brother of the late Ahmed Timol, holds up a copy of the book "Timol: A Quest for Justice" at the judgment proceedings in Pretoria on Thursday.
Gulshan Khan
AFP/Getty Images
Former anti-apartheid activist Mohamed Timol, brother of the late Ahmed Timol, holds up a copy of the book "Timol: A Quest for Justice" at the judgment proceedings in Pretoria on Thursday.

In October 1971, South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol died under suspicious circumstances in police custody. An inquest the next year found that he committed suicide by jumping out of a 10th floor window at a Johannesburg police station.

But today, a Pretoria judge reversed that finding, saying that Timol was murdered and that the apartheid police holding and interrogating him were responsible.

The case has the potential to bring new inquiries into other cases in which detainees died in police custody during apartheid. According to The Associated Press, 72 other political detainees died in custody between 1963 and 1990.

"The cause of death is massive head, brain and chest vital center damage and compromised respiratory injuries," Judge Billy Mothle told a crowded courtroom at the North Gauteng High Court. "Timol's death was brought about by an act of having been pushed from the 10th floor or roof of the John Vorster Square building to fall to the ground ...amounting to murder."

A previous inquest had found that no living person was responsible for Timol's death. Mothle stated that the irony is that this remains mostly true, 46 years later – "because most of the main perpetrators this court would have recommended for investigation and possible charges have since passed on."

He said that "all members of the security branch involved in the interrogation of Timol, or keeping guard over him in room 1026, are collectively responsible for the injuries sustained before he fell." Timol's body bore injuries that were not fresh and not consistent with a fall, according to medical evidence. The court accepts that they were sustained as a result of torture, the judge added.

Joao Rodrigues, a police officer involved in interrogating Timol who is still alive, testified in both 1972 and in the most recent probe that he saw Timol rush toward the window and jump.

The judge called this version "clearly fabricated" in his ruling and accused Rodrigues of participating in a cover-up. The injuries Timol sustained would not have allowed him to quickly dash through a window, the judge said. Mothle said Rodrigues was an "accessory after the fact" to Timol's murder, and recommended that he be investigated and prosecuted.

As reporter Peter Granitz has told NPR, Timol's family "pushed the government for years to reopen the original inquest because they never believed Timol committed suicide."

Here's more from Granitz on Timol's background:

"Ahmed Timol was a 29-year-old schoolteacher when he was arrested at a police roadblock in Johannesburg. He was working underground recruiting for the African National Congress, which was banned by the government for fighting apartheid. Timol's mother, Hawa, testified in 1996 at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"The TRC gave victims and their families the chance to confront those who committed abuses during the apartheid era. Perpetrators could apply for amnesty. None of the police who interrogated Timol attended, and none asked for amnesty. ...Hawa Timol told a TRC panel chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that apartheid police tortured her son, that his fingernails were ripped out before he died."

Today, Tutu issued a statement after the judgment that was read by Timol's family, according to the AP: "It is sad that it took so long."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.