Age no excuse for special branch killers to escape prosecution

November 11, 2018

OPINION / 11 NOVEMBER 2018, 09:20AM / BY SHANNON EBRAHIM


Former apartheid police officer Joao Rodrigues appears at the South Gauteng high court. Rodrigues was an officer in the apartheid-era police’s feared security branch and is accused of being part of a group of policemen who murdered Ahmed Timol while he was in custody in 1971. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Ninety-something year olds worldwide are being tried for their political crimes, so what makes Joao Rodrigues think he is too old to face the music? 

The pitiful arguments he puts forward in an effort to escape prosecution is that he is 79 years old, travelling to Johannesburg from Pretoria for the trial is tiring, he has to walk with a walking stick, has diabetes and a heart condition, a fading memory, and should have been tried earlier. 

I would like to introduce him to an 81-year-old I know who is working two jobs, travelling overseas regularly and never complains.

But more to the point, there have been a series of ninety year olds in the media lately who are facing trial for their role in crimes committed as many as 78 years ago. 

This month a 94-year-old former SS guard faces trial for his complicity in mass murder in a concentration camp in Stutthof – seven decades after World War Two. 

Currently 28 prosecutions are underway of Nazi concentration camp guards, most of whom are over 90 years old.

Four months ago, eight retired Chilean military officers were sentenced to fifteen years in prison for a murder committed 45 years ago. 

Similarly, this year four former high ranking Guatemalan military officers were sentenced to 58 years in prison for forced disappearances and sexual abuse committed in 1981. 

In 2016 an Argentine Air Force Brigadier Omar Graffigna at the age of 90 went on trial for forced disappearances.

The message these cases are sending is that you are never too old to face justice, and this is a critical warning to all those who think they will get away with crimes against humanity with the passage of time, and national processes of reconciliation. 

Our own reconciliation process was arguably over generous in offering apartheid’s killers amnesty if they gave a full disclosure of their crimes. 

The process was inherently flawed in that many of the special branch murders did not fully disclose their crimes, or gave inaccurate versions of what happened, and were still given amnesty, which went against the grain of amnesty in return for the truth.

Rodrigues may not have been a senior ranking military officer or a concentration camp guard complicit in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, but that does not absolve him of complicity in one of the most brutal killings of the apartheid era, and his intentional cover-up of that murder over decades. 

He was given fair warning, both at the time of the TRC and by Judge Billy Motle in the Timol inquest last year, that if he came clean and told the truth, he could escape prosecution for his role in the crime, but at every opportunity he stuck to the narrative the Special Branch concocted to cover up Ahmed Timol’s brutal murder in John Vorster Square in 1971.

The judge found that not only had he perjured himself in the original 1971 inquest, but again in the 2017 inquest, but he had obstructed and defeated the ends of justice. 

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) believes they have enough evidence to prove his complicity in Timol’s murder.

The successful prosecution of Rodrigues is hugely significant not only for the sake of  justice and Timol’s family, but because it sets a precedent in terms of the prosecution of other members of the Special Branch who tortured and murdered anti-apartheid activists and never owned up to their crimes at the TRC.

A growing body of evidence is emerging that suggests the Special Branch version of the murder of Western Cape activist Ashley Kriel at the TRC is only a fraction of the truth. His murderers were given amnesty when in fact they likely failed to disclose the full truth. 

Such inquests also need to be reopened, along with that of Nokuthula Simelane, Dr Hoosen Haffejee, Dr Neil Aggett among others. 

Our children need to know the truth, and this was the basis of the historic compromise made in the transition that evil deeds would be forgiven as long as they were exposed. If other countries can pursue the path of justice, so can we.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor


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