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Quest for justice for victims of Apartheid

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) Archives – The family of Imam Abdullah Haron visit the Cape Town Central police station where he was detained for three months and also allegedly fell down the stairs and injured himself.

By Yasmin Sooka

The reopened inquest into the death of the late Imam Haron began on November 7, 53 years after his death in detention on September 27, 1969. Advocates Howard Varney and Naefa Kahn, appearing for the Haron family, said “the reopened inquest will finally unearth the truth about what happened to Imam Haron”.

The late imam, a progressive religious leader, was held in solitary confinement for more than 123 days, during which time he was interrogated and brutally tortured by South Africa’s most notorious torturer, Sergeant Johannes “Spyker” van Wyk, and Major Dirk Kotze Genis.

Haron was targeted by the security branch once he became involved in anti-apartheid activities, and he developed close ties with the PAC. The 1970 inquest presided over by apartheid magistrate JSP Kuhn, found that the imam had fallen to his death, contradicting the evidence of the pathologist, Dr Percy Helman. The latter testified that it was extremely unlikely the imam had died from the fall, as alleged by the apartheid security branch, given the injuries to his body. The inquest magistrate was complicit in covering up the imam’s murder by the security branch.

Despite the generous amnesty process provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the late Spyker van Wyk and Genis did not apply for amnesty, taking their secrets to their graves.

The late imam’s wife’s children – Muhammed, Shamela and Fatima – approached the Foundation for Human Rights in 2017 to assist them to uncover the truth about their father’s death. The FHR secured the pro bono services of Webber Wentzel Attorneys, who reinvestigated the case, providing a legal basis for the reopening of the inquest.

Judge Daniel Mafeleu Thulare, presiding over the re-opened inquest, took great pains to assure the family of his commitment to uncovering the truth. Thivash Moodley, an aeronautical engineer, testified about the court describing multiple scenarios associated with a “fall from the stairs”, and concluded that, if the imam had indeed fallen down a staircase, this could not have been the cause of all his injuries or of his death.

Moodley’s testimony was followed by the expert evidence of state pathologist Dr Itumeleng Molefe and Dr Steve Naidoo, the independent pathologist briefed by the family. Both experts dismissed the “staircase-fall” theory relied on in the first inquest, as the bruises and fractured rib on Haron’s body were not the same colour, as they had been inflicted at different times and were inconsistent with a fall down the stairs. Both pathologists concluded the bruises were probably caused by blunt-force trauma arising from significant assaults on different days during the period of Haron’s detention.

Shamela Shamis, the imam’s older daughter, testified about the letters, written on Pyotts biscuit wrappers and smuggled out of prison, she had received from her father. The imam’s letters reassured the family that his detention was for a good cause. He also promised he would never sell out his compatriots. The imam’s two other children, Muhammed and Fatima, spoke poignantly about the impact of their father’s death on their lives.

Former political detainees Jeremy Cronin, Yusuf Gabru, Shirley Gunn and Stephanie Kemp, who had been interrogated by Spyker van Wyk, testified to the systematic brutality and torture meted out by the criminal apartheid state. They described Spyker van Wyk as a “posture of evil” and a “barbarian”, who was bent on brutality. Van Wyk was feared even among his own colleagues and had been given the nickname “Spyker” (“nail”) on account of his brutal torture of detainees.

Johannes Hendrik Burger, the former policeman who found Haron dead in his cell, denied any knowledge of the torture perpetrated by the security branch, a claim refuted by Advocate Howard Varney, who submitted Johannes Burger was an evasive witness, as he had been aware of the security branch’s reputation for torturing detainees and was complicit in failing to arrange a doctor for Haron in the days leading up to his death.

While the apartheid state refused to accept any responsibility for the imam’s death, and protected those responsible for his murder, the reopened inquest presents a unique opportunity for Judge Thulare to overturn the first inquest’s finding and rule that the security branch murdered Imam Haron. He can also ensure that those implicated in the imam’s death and its cover-up are held accountable for it posthumously, including the medical practitioners, whose names can be removed from the medical register.

The Haron Inquest provides families of apartheid-era victims with hope that one day they too will uncover the truth. The delays by the state in dealing with cases arising from the TRC have, however, compromised investigations and possible prosecutions. The failure of the state to fulfil its constitutional mandate by adopting a moratorium on dealing with apartheid-era crimes must be probed by an independent commission of inquiry, as it has led to incalculable harm to the families of victims.

Yasmin Sooka is chairperson of the supervisory board of the Foundation for Human Rights.