The National Prosecuting Authority has been criticised for its decision not to prosecute two former apartheid police security branch members who allegedly tortured of many political detainees in the 1970s, some of whom died at their hands.
The Foundation for Human Rights asked for the prosecution of former police officer Seth Sons, who was responsible for the brutal torture of several detainees. The former Security Branch officer retired from the police force with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
The FHR cited records that showed Sons and his colleague Neville Els were in the room when anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol was murdered in detention in 1971. In the case of Neville Els, who was a warrant officer at the time, police records in the Ahmed Timol Inquest showed that he was one of the police interrogators on duty the night that Timol’s fellow detainee Kantilal Naik was tortured using the “helicopter method”.
During the reopened Timol case, Salim Essop, another Timol fellow detainee, said Els also threatened him saying that “you will suffer the same fate as Babla Saloojee if you do not cooperate”. Salojee fell to his death from a window on the 10th floor of the then John Vorster police station.
Essop, who was dangled in the air over a window with security branch officers threatening to drop him, was so severely tortured that he ended up in hospital. He returned to South Africa to testify at the re-opened Timol case.
He said: “Neville Els and Seth Sons were well known to activists from the ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’ townships, having been responsible for their detention and torture. Both agree that the underlying principle that makes torture so traumatic is the individual’s loss of control.”
The foundation said neither Sons nor Els had ever been investigated by the NPA for their role as alleged torturers and in aiding and abetting apartheid killings and torture.
“Any hope that the new leadership at the NPA would do so has been dashed by the recent decision of NPA director of public prosecutions (DPP) for North Gauteng not to take action against Seth Sons and Neville Els.”
The foundation said the DPP’s argument that age is an issue that precludes the NPA from indicting these two alleged perpetrators is a morally revolting travesty of justice.
According to the foundation, Sons and Els were evasive in giving evidence and perjured themselves at the re-opened Timol inquest, so much so that Judge Billy Mothle ruled that they should both be charged for perjury. During the inquest, many detainees testified to their torture at the hands of the security branch members.
In sworn affidavits, five well known human rights activists described the torture and assaults they experienced at the hands of the two Black security officers, Sons and Els, and the subsequent emotional trauma it caused.
The foundation’s former executive director, advocate Yasmin Sooka, accused the NPA of being complicit in the torture by not prosecuting Sons. It said the NPA had neglected its responsibilities and had become complicit in deepening impunity in-country “for not only apartheid crimes but ‘torture’.”
“Twenty-four years after the end of apartheid, NPA apparatus who should be passionately committed to delivering justice and accountability to our people have once again let them down,” Sooka said.
“Torture is considered to be the gravest crime by the international community and obliges states to ensure that those responsible for torture are held accountable, whether that torture occurred now or in the past. There is no prescription for these crimes. Furthermore, South Africa has ratified the Convention on Torture and has even domesticated it. In addition, prescription does not apply for apartheid crimes under our law. Do we need to teach senior legal officials the law?”
In response to the foundation’s criticism, Sipho Ngwema, NPA spokesperson said: “As far as the assault charges at John Vorster Square are concerned, prescription has set in, as a period of 20 years has passed since the commission of the offences in 1982/83. Section 18 of the Criminal Procedure Act, No. 51 of 1977 provides that the right to institute a prosecution for offences such as assault prescribes after the lapse of 20 years, from the date of the commission of such offences.
“Regarding perjury charges, the state must prove that their evidence is intentionally false. Both Mr Els and Sons gave three standard answers regarding their knowledge of the assault of detainees. They said they were not aware of the assaults on detainees and that they can’t remember or that they read about them in newspapers.”
He said given the fact that 46 years have passed, “their ages (80 and 82 years), the long effluxion of time, and their advanced age will militate against a guilty finding.”
He said neither Els or Sons testified in the original inquest proceedings in June 1972 or made statements then, and thus had to rely on their memories only.
“There is also a technicality in that Mr Sons was not properly put under oath. A witness is only competent to testify if he appreciates the difference between truth and untruth.”
- This story has been updated to include the response from the NPA