ANC discloses some members beat and tortured dissidents during 1980s

October 20, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

JOHANNESBURG -- Before the African National Congress was legalized, some of its officials beat, tortured, humiliated and perhaps even killed prisoners they regarded as ideological dissidents or apartheid spies, according to a report released by an ANC-appointed commission.

"We accept ultimate responsibility for not adequately monitoring and therefore eradicating abuses," ANC President Nelson Mandela said yesterday in presenting the 74-page report, a chilling account of brutality at a network of ANC-operated prison camps through Africa in the mid-'80s.

People were savagely beaten, held in squalid cells for years without trial, tortured with fire and fists, denied medical care, deprived of food and, according to some allegations, simply murdered or taken away never to be seen again.

"The inmates were denigrated, humiliated and abused, often with staggering brutality," the report concluded. "It was violence for the sake of violence."

Mr. Mandela acknowledged yesterday that "serious abuses" -- even "atrocities" -- had been committed in the name of the ANC. But, he said, they were carried out in violation of the organization's own code of conduct and without the knowledge or direction of the top leadership.

Also, Mr. Mandela said, the abuses must be viewed as part of a struggle against a brutal enemy that was not averse to using torture or murder to further its own ends.

"Looking at matters in retrospect, many of the transgressions must be understood in the context in which they occurred," he said. "Nonetheless, they are inexcusable."

The name of only one of the alleged torturers appeared in the report -- Mzwai Piliso, head of the ANC's department of intelligence and security until his ouster in 1987.

Others were identified during the commission's closed-door sessions, but both the commission and the ANC decided not to make public their names, at least until they have been given a chance to "provide their side of the story," said ANC official Mac Maharaj.

"Several of the persons accused of committing acts of torture are presently employed in the security department of the ANC," the commission said, concluding, that the ANC should "cleanse its own ranks . . . No person who is guilty of committing atrocities should ever again be allowed to assume a position of power."

As suggested in the commission's report, another "independent commission" will be formed to look into specific charges and take testimony from alleged victims and tormentors. Only then, Mr. Mandela said, would any names be made public or any lTC action be taken against ANC officials involved in the atrocities.

He said "we are approaching this as a matter of urgency," but he could not say how long this further inquiry might take. Nor would he promise that the names of the torturers would be released.

"What we will decide to do will be based on the evidence," he said.

The charges against the ANC, combined with its lack of candor about who was involved, comes at an awkward time for the organization.

Just last week, it was chastising President F.W. De Klerk for proposing a new law allowing him to pardon any government official or security force member for crimes committed in defense of apartheid. The indemnities would be granted after a secret hearing before a committee appointed by Mr. De Klerk.

ANC officials criticized the law because it did not offer sufficient "disclosure" about what crimes had been committed, and by whom.

Yesterday, ANC Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa said the group was not trying to escape responsibility for what happened. Indeed, he said, it was "courageous" in setting up the commission and then making its highly damaging report public.

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