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After 45 Years, Late Anti-Apartheid Activist Could Get Another Chance In Court


South Africa is taking a new look into the death of an anti-apartheid activist 45 years after he died. Ahmed Timol died suspiciously in police custody. Timol was an activist for the African National Congress, the ANC, which is now the country's ruling party. The findings in this case might lead to other apartheid-era cases being re-opened. Peter Granitz reports from Pretoria.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Ahmed Timol plunged from the window of room 1026 at what was then John Vorster Square Police Station in central Johannesburg on October 27, 1971. An inquest in 1972 determined Timol jumped, that he committed suicide to escape his imprisonment, that, as the judge wrote, there was no one to blame.

IMTIAZ CAJEE: Surely we cannot just accept the rulings and findings that were made. Surely we can't just ignore and forget our loved ones.

GRANITZ: Imtiaz Cajee is Timon's nephew. He says his family has pushed the government for years to reopen the original inquest because they never believed Timol committed suicide. Cajee says he wants his uncle to be remembered as a martyr. And the family is not out for vengeance against the police.

CAJEE: If you asked me 10, 15 years ago, yes, I would have been the first to say prosecute them because we hate them for what they've done. But as the years move on and we begin to understand our short stay on Earth and we understand the broader picture, we then appreciate the fact that, look, we need to let things go.

GRANITZ: 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. Through an interpreter, 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.


HAWA TIMOL: (Through interpreter) I want to know who assaulted him. And I want to know who lodged the complaint about my son.

GRANITZ: It's unclear whether the current inquest will answer her questions. It's not a trial. It's a government fact-finding exercise. And it's the first time in democratic South Africa that the government has reopened an inquest into apartheid police crimes. George Bizos has, for decades, represented the families of anti-apartheid activists killed in detention, including the Timol family in the 1972 inquest. He says in that hearing, the apartheid state knew it could trust a junior judge to rule in the government's favor. Bizos, now 89, says if the judge overturns the original 1972 finding, it would set a new precedent and open the door to legal cases.

GEORGE BIZOS: There may be criminal and civil proceedings against government prison and also criminal proceedings of those who may still be alive.

GRANITZ: Already, forensic pathologists have testified that Timol's skull may have been crushed before the fall. And it's possible the last police officer who was in room 1026 with Timol before he fell out of the window will take the stand. The inquest continues next week, and the judge is expected to announce his findings in mid-August. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Granitz