46 years on, S.African activist's family call for murder charge

by Gregory WALTON
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46 years on, family of S.African activist call for murder charge

Pretoria (AFP) - A South African policeman present at the suspicious death of an anti-apartheid campaigner in 1971 should be charged with murder, a court heard Wednesday as the official version of events came under harsh scrutiny.

Joao Rodrigues, a former member of the feared security police, was allegedly the last officer to have been with Ahmed Timol before Timol plunged to his death from the 10th-floor of Johannesburg police headquarters.

Rodrigues has faced three days of intensive questioning at the High Court inquest in Pretoria into Timol's death and has at times given contradictory accounts of the incident of 46 years ago.

"We will be submitting to this court that the court recommend... that you be charged with perjury (and) the murder of Ahmed Timol," the Timol family's lawyer Howard Varney said.

Rodrigues, 78, has strenuously denied harming Timol or any involvement in his death, telling both the new inquest and an inquest in 1972 that Timol died by jumping out the window.

"I do not concur with counsel's submission," Rodrigues said after Varney accused him of murder and other crimes.

Timol's family has campaigned for decades for a new probe to overturn the original court verdict that he had committed suicide.

They had initially said they did not want prosecutions against those involved but simply wanted to learn the truth.

"Rodrigues is standing by what he said in 1972. By not being truthful he's asking to be prosecuted. He's not making things easy for himself," Timol's younger brother Mohammad told AFP.

Timol's death has become symbolic of police conduct under the apartheid system, as well as the failure to bring justice to its victims since the fall of white-minority rule in 1994.

- Judge questions evidence -

"He remains arrogant, sticks to his particular version, and (we have) absolutely no doubt he must face the full force of the law," said Timol's nephew Imtiaz Cajee following Rodrigues' evidence.

Both the lawyers for Timol's family and the state have raised multiple doubts over Rodrigues' account of how the 29-year-old communist recruit fell to his death.

"I have heard evidence from witnesses... which says to me that your story is not probable," Judge Billy Mothle told Rodrigues on Wednesday.

Rodrigues said that Timol was not mistreated and had jumped out of the window after becoming fearful.

"I only saw him from the side... but he did not have any injuries," added Rodrigues.

But Varney said that Timol had suffered serious injuries before his plunge -- a claim supported by two independent pathologist reports submitted to the court.

"He could barely walk let alone get up and storm to the window and dive out," said Varney.

Rodrigues had also claimed that Timol's dash for the window "happened in a split second" and caught him off guard when he was left alone with the detainee.

"It would not be possible to run, open the window and dive," said Varney, quoting the report of an aeronautical expert.

"I'm saying this is what I saw," said Rodrigues. "That's what happened."

Rodrigues had also said that he had attempted to intercept Timol as he made for the window.

"Isn't it extraordinary that you couldn't catch him?" said Varney. "If there was a so-called chase... you would have caught him.

"This entire story of a suicide is a fabrication and it's always difficult to maintain consistency in a fabrication."

The case has re-opened apartheid-era wounds from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which provided a public arena to air the crimes committed under white rule and concluded its work in 1998.

"It was unimportant -- it was not imperative for the police to take up the platform," said Rodrigues when asked why he had not given evidence to the commission.

The inquest continues.