Excerpts from the SAPA Coverage of the Biko Amnesty Trials

CAPE TOWN Sep 5th 1997


    Twenty years after an inquest magistrate ruled that no one was to blame for black consciousness leader Steve Biko's death in detention, five of the policemen who interrogated him are preparing to go before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's amnesty committee.
    For George Bizos, one of the country's foremost lawyers, there will be a sense of deja vu about the policemen's amnesty hearing in Port Elizabeth next week.
    He has been retained by the Biko family to oppose amnesty for the policemen.
    In 1977, he and Sydney Kentridge, SC, represented the family at the inquest, challenging the policemen's version of the events leading up to the activist's death.
    That they have now applied for amnesty is "cold comfort", Bizos told Sapa.
    "We said they were lying then and they now admit it ... It shows how wrong the magistrate was."
    However, returning to the case after an absence of 20 years presented certain difficulties.
    "You have to dig up information, but I have a fairly good memory of what was said."
    Bizos will challenge the policemen's claim that they have made a full disclosure in their amnesty applications and that Biko's death was politically motivated....

JOHANNESBURG, Sep 9th 1997


    The death 20 years ago in police custody of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was an "interrogation gone wrong," his son, Nkosinathi, claimed.
    "I'm not sure there were any instructions from above to kill my father," Biko, 26, said in an interview with AFP. "What happened lies in the realm of the criminal. It went out of hand. It was an interrogation gone wrong."
    Five of the policemen, including former colonel Gideon Niewoudt - who is requesting amnesty for a total 10 murders and is serving a 20-year jail term for four of them - have applied to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty for Biko's death.
    The policemen are expected to claim when they appear at the start of the hearing in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday that they did not mean to kill Biko...
    Nkosinathi Biko believes the five policemen will not meet these requirements as two days after his father's death, then police minister Jimmy Kruger announced Steve Biko had died of a hunger strike.
    "If there had been a calculated move to kill my father, he would at least have given an explanation of his death that was consistent with the nature of his injuries," he told British-based television network WTN in a separate interview.
    "In other words, they would have arranged, for instance, that my father rolled down a flight of stairs, in which case it is possible to get brain damage - which you don't get through starving to death," he said.
    Biko, who was only six when his 31-year-old father died manacled, naked and beaten on the concrete floor of a prison cell, told AFP his family would prefer to see justice done rather than the men receiving amnesty as he did not believe they were motivated by the desire for reconciliation.
    Rather, he said, he believed the applications were sparked by the Biko family's decision to press numerous charges, including murder, against them.
    He also did not think that the family, which is vigorously opposing the amnesty applications, would learn anything from the policemen at the truth commission that was not made public at the 1978 inquest.
    "But we will expose them for what they are, a bunch of people who took it upon themselves (to kill Steve Biko), at great cost to South Africa."
    Biko until earlier this year worked here in newspaper marketing but in recent months has concentrated on making a documentary film - to be launched later this week - on the life of his father.
    Biko has no doubts his father would have reached the very top in South African politics, if he was still alive.
    "In terms of what his role was and what he was capable of, I think he was material to hold the highest office in the country," he said.

PORT ELIZABETH, Sep 10th 1997


    Convicted killer and former security policeman Gideon Nieuwoudt has admitted to beating black consciousness leader Steve Biko with a piece of hosepipe during a scuffle which apparently resulted in Biko's death six days later.
    In his application for amnesty submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and made public on Wednesday, Nieuwoudt said he went to the aid of colleagues after Biko became embroiled in a "full-scale fight" with his security police interrogators.
    The former police colonel said Biko refused to co-operate with the interrogation team questioning him about his activities.
    When Siebert pulled him off a chair, Biko lost his temper and shoved the chair at the policeman and tried to punch him.
    "A full-scale fight ensued in which blows were traded and people were pushed around. Everything happened very fast. I saw the situation was starting to get out of hand so I grabbed a piece of hosepipe.
    "I hit him across the back several times to try and subdue him and I eventually managed to get hold of him," Nieuwoudt said.
    Beneke and Siebert helped him restrain Biko as they pushed him into a corner of the room.
    "During the struggle he landed against the wall. His head hit the wall first, following which he collapsed to the floor.
    "There was no intention to hit his head against the wall. It was just necessary to bring him under control."
    After banging his head, Biko continued to refuse to answer questions, and regional security police chief Colonel Piet Goosen ordered that he be handcuffed, standing up, to a security gate in the office.
    "During the course of the day it became clear to me that something was wrong with Biko. His speech became incoherent and he started to slur his words. He seemed to be confused," Nieuwoudt said.
    Biko also lost control of his bladder and soiled his clothes. When district surgeon Dr Ivor Lang visited him the following day, he instructed that his clothes and handcuffs be removed.
    Biko was given a blanket to cover himself while his clothes were washed....
    Nieuwoudt is serving a jail sentence for murder.

PORT ELIZABETH, Sep 10th 1997


    Black consciousness leader Steve Biko was made to stand manacled to a security gate for almost a whole day after sustaining fatal brain injuries in a scuffle with police, his chief interrogator Major Harold Snyman admitted for the first time on Wednesday.
    Testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's amnesty committee, Snyman also admitted to being party to a cover-up to hide the fact that police waited nearly 24 hours before seeking medical treatment for the brain-damaged activist.
    He said he had lied at the 1977 inquest into Biko's death which cleared him and his interrogation team of any wrongdoing.
    In recounting the events leading up to Biko's death on Wednesday, he stuck closely to the basic story he told the inquest - that the activist hit his head against a wall, causing severe brain injuries, during a scuffle with police.
    One of the key differences though was the time-factor. Inquest magistrate Marthinus Prins was told Biko's interrogation began on September 6 and continued on September 7, when the scuffle occurred and Biko was injured.
    Several hours later a district surgeon had been called to examine him, his interrogators testified.
    Snyman on Wednesday admitted this was a lie. The scuffle occurred between 9am and 9.30am on September 6, almost 24 hours before a doctor treated him on September 7.
    Police also told the inquest Biko had been handcuffed and had one leg chained to a security gate on the evening of September 6, before the incident in which he was injured.
    That, said Snyman, was also not true. Biko was already seriously ill, appearing dazed and confused, and slurring his words. He was handcuffed, spread-eagled, to the gate.
    His legs were also chained together so that he was virtually suspended, not being able to move or sit down.
    "I would agree that it was inhuman but we were acting under instructions," the policeman conceded under cross-examination by George Bizos, the Biko family's lawyer.
    "Was it not a form of torture?" Bizos asked.
    "That would be correct," Snyman replied.
    However, he insisted that he done his duty by reporting the activist's injuries to his superior, Colonel Piet Goosen, who had relieved him and taken personal charge of the case.
    Biko's widow Ntsiki told journalists afterwards she believed she was no closer to learning the truth about what had really caused her husband's death.
    "His testimony is nothing new. I think he is lying more than he did at the inquest. I have been saying this all along - they are going to lie even more so they get amnesty. I feel bad."
    Bizos told the committee he would oppose amnesty on the grounds that the applicants had not made a full disclosure or proved a political motive.
    "The new version, although substantially similar to the one given to the inquest, has merely been modified in order to try and explain away some of the concrete evidence which did not fit the false version given to the inquest in 1977."
    ....In admitting to the cover-up after Biko's death, Snyman said the security police had sought to avoid embarrassment to the police and the government, as well as possible loss of foreign investment.
    Policemen involved in the investigation into Biko's activities had submitted statements "in which the true facts of this case were adapted and concealed", he said.
    "These statements did not reflect the true facts. Later, at the inquest, I gave evidence and continued to give this version as the truth."
    The cover-up had been orchestrated by regional security police chief Goosen, who has since died.

PORT ELIZABETH, Sep10th 1997


    Lawyers for the family of Steve Biko would argue that Major Harold Snyman, who led the police interrogation on the black consciousness leader, was deliberately withholding the truth, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was told on Wednesday.
    Advocate George Bizos (SC), for the Biko family, said amnesty applicants sometimes failed to make a full disclosure in an attempt to avoid "moral and other responsibility".
    "We are going to suggest he (Snyman) is deliberately withholding the truth."
    Snyman testified in his evidence-in-chief that Biko sustained a fatal head injury during a scuffle with security policemen during the interrogation.
    He said he was unable to explain how Biko acquired numerous abrasions, but said it "must have been during the scuffle" or from being shackled.
    Bizos said "two prominent professors and a pathologist of international repute" had found numerous abrasions on Biko's body, which they estimated were inflicted over a period four to eight days prior to his death.
    He said a "tramline" scar 5cm long and 6mm wide was found on Biko's back.
    Despite an admission by convicted killer Gideon Nieuwoudt - one of the four other policemen applying for amnesty in connection with Biko's death - that he beat Biko with a piece of hosepipe during the fatal scuffle, Snyman repeatedly denied seeing the hosepipe assault.
    "I simply did not see it. It's use would have been irregular... Irregularities did occur."
    He further conceded that it was police policy to use torture in 1977.
    Bizos contended it was impossible that Snyman did not see the hosepipe being used on Biko.
PORT ELIZABETH, Sep 11th 1997


    Black consciousness leader Steve Biko died as a result of a beating administered by security policemen, not while being restrained, the Biko's family lawyer George Bizos suggested on Thursday.
    ....Bizos said at the amnesty hearing in Port Elizabeth on Thursday: "I suggest that if you speak of a general scuffle now we will submit you are not telling the truth. The reason (you are not telling the truth) is we think you are converting a beating up into a scuffle."
    Snyman said he could not recall details of the "scuffle" as it had taken place 20 years ago, but he did recall that while trying to restrain an "aggressive" Biko, three members of his team, Gidoen Nieuwoudt, Daantjie Siebert and Johan Beneke had punched him a number of times.
    Bizos: "Is this not a strange way to restrain a person who is so heavily outnumbered? Punching must be the least effective way of restraining him."
    Snyman: "Yes, that is so. But Biko was a strong man and force had to be applied to shackle him again."
    Bizos submitted that with five security policemen present in the interrogation room, there could have been a policeman holding each arm and each leg with "one to spare".
    "Punching must be the least effective if the intention is restraint."
    Snyman also said he was unable to recall if anyone had attended to Biko's more obvious injuries, such as a bleeding lip.
    "Would you have forgotten if any humane behaviour was shown towards a man treated so inhumanely?" Bizos asked.
    "I put it to you that someone who beats someone else up is not likely to behave in a humane manner. But if the injuries had been sustained accidentally, as you claim, you and your colleagues would have done the decent thing. But because you hated who and what Biko was and what he stood for, you did nothing."
    Snyman denied that he hated Biko, but admitted that things done to Biko in police custody had been inhumane.

© South African Press Association, 1996

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