The Food and allied Workers Union (FAWU) and the SA Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) welcome the reopened inquest into the death in custody of Ahmed Timol, an ANC and SACP anti-Apartheid activist.
The inquest into his death in 1971 found that he had committed suicide by jumping out of a 10th floor window of the John Vorster Square Police Station in Johannesburg, 4 days after being arrested.
His family and comrades have never accepted this finding and believe that he was murdered by the apartheid security police (SAP) and want the true cause of his death to be uncovered.
Forensic pathologists Professor Steve Naidoo and Dr Shakeera Holland have blown gaping holes in the police version of the events and presented their reports to the re-opened inquest sitting in the North Gauteng High Court.
The two specialists separately reviewed all available literature from the original Timol Inquest, including the post-mortem report and a series of photographs attached to it and both concluded that Timol sustained major injuries before falling to the ground from a 10th floor window.
“The multiple injuries that were present on the body of the deceased which could not be ascribed to the fall from a height indicate that the deceased sustained physical assault while in police custody, prior to his death.”
Professor Steve Naidoo suggested that the non-fall related wounds were the result of an assault. “They’re not like what was suggested in the original inquest, brushing against the wall or falling against a corner. I believe that it was a fall caused by multiple applications of force.”
The Timol inquest is continuing and unearthing relevant and very encouraging facts around such questionable loss of life.
FAWU is following it very closely, as we could not help but notice the closeness of this case to FAWU’s ongoing struggle to have an inquest into the death of Dr Neil Aggett in custody in 1982.
Neil was a medical doctor and became an organizer in the Transvaal branch of the Food and Canning Workers’ Union, the forerunner of FAWU, and was passionate about workers rights, such as company supported medical aid schemes.
He played an enormous role in organizing the successful Fatti’s and Moni’s strike in Isando and Tembisa. His participation in such strikes made him a target of the SAP security branch. The state labelled him a communist.
On 27 November 1981, was detained for his role in labour movement under the Terrorism Act, held at Pretoria Central Prison and later transferred to John Vorster Square in Johannesburg.
After 70 days of interrogation, during which no charges were ever laid against him, he died in detention on 5 February 1982, allegedly by hanging himself with a scarf.
During a six-month long inquest into his death, George Bizos. S.C. a lawyer who represented the Aggett family, claimed that security police, by brutal interrogation methods, had broken Aggett and destabilized his personality to such an extent that they drove him to commit ‘induced’ suicide.
The inquest heard that he had been assaulted, blindfolded and given electric shocks. However Magistrate Kotze ruled that the death was not brought about by any act or omission on the part of the police and that no-one was to blame.
Yet five years after his death, at the 1987 conference of the Five Freedoms Forum, fellow detainee, Frank Chikane recalled how he had seen Aggett in jail returning from one of his interrogations, being half carried, half dragged by warders; Chikane saw this as a sign of how badly injured Aggett was already at the time.
Neil Aggett became the first white person to have died while in Security Police detention and the 51st person to have died in detention. He was 28 years old.
He was buried in West Park Cemetery, Johannesburg on 11 February 1982. His funeral was filmed and about 15 000 people attended. The Food and Canning Workers’ Union issued a call that all workers would stay away from work on the day of his funeral.
On that day, the presence of police did not stop thousands of workers and fellow trade unionists to sing revolutionary songs and reaffirm their commitment to the struggle for which Neil had died.
The inquest verdict of no-one to blame was reversed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998. The Commission’s final report found that “the intensive interrogation of Dr Aggett by Major A Cronwright and Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead, and the treatment he received while in detention for more than seventy days were directly responsible for the mental and physical condition of Dr Aggett which led him to take his own life”.
The report also stated that “troubling inquests”, such as the one into Aggett’s death, caused the Apartheid regime to find alternative ways of disposing of its opponents, including “disappearing” people.
FAWU hopes that the Timol inquest will set a precedent for similar reopened inquests into Neil Aggett and all other activists who suffered and paid the ultimate price at the hand of the apartheid regime, and for the prosecution and punishment of those officers responsible for their torture and murder, including specifically those named in the TRC report into Neil’s torture and death.
The unanswered questions of families of those need to be heard and they need too know that justice is finally done for those who martyrs who died in apartheid regime police custody.