5 retired S. African policemen seek amnesty for death of Biko But one of the officers sticks to discredited story about activist's killing

September 11, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- Twenty years ago this week, five police officers took black activist Steve Biko into a sixth-floor interrogation room of a nondescript building in the center of this industrial city.

A half-hour later, Biko lay slumped against the wall, dazed from a blow to his head. Believing that Biko was feigning injury, the police chained him to an iron gate for the rest of the day.

By the end of the week, Biko was dead and the anti-apartheid movement had gained its biggest martyr. Police attempts to explain away Biko's death as the result of a hunger strike and then as an accident were widely ridiculed.

The air was supposed to be cleared this week as the five retired officers who interrogated Biko begin their testimony before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where they are seeking amnesty for Biko's killing. But the first former officer to testify yesterday stuck to his story that Biko died in an accident largely of his own making.

"It was not our intention to kill him," said retired Col. Harold Snyman, who was the regional commander of the Eastern Cape security police at the time of Biko's death in 1977.

Snyman said that the 30-year-old founder of the black consciousness movement became "rebellious and aggressive" during his interrogation and that a fight broke out with the police.

During the scuffle, he said, Biko's head "made contact with the wall" and he slumped to the floor, disoriented. He said he did not know who delivered the blow.

"There was no assault on him other than an attempt to bring him under control," said Snyman.

Warrant Officer Johan Beneke ran across the room and threw his shoulder in Biko's ribs, like a rugby tackle, Snyman said. "A very violent struggle" ensued. Snyman said the melee was too confusing to remember the details, other than the fact that Biko ended up hitting his head against the wall.

Biko died Sept. 12, 1977, after being driven naked and unconscious for 11 hours and 700 miles to Pretoria Central prison from Port Elizabeth in the back of a police Land Rover. Autopsies said his body was covered with bruises that appeared to have been sustained over a four-day period. The most serious wound, and the cause of death, was an injury above his left eye.

Snyman acknowledged that a police commander ordered a cover-up because Biko's death would cause "embarrassment to the police and the South African government" and frighten away foreign investors.

Snyman's evasive replies and forgetfulness were sharply rebuked by George Bizos, a lawyer for the Biko family, which wants the police prosecuted in criminal court rather than to receive amnesty from the truth commission.

Bizos said that Snyman was making up a new story to conform with the facts that have emerged in the years since a 1977 inquest exonerated the police.

Bizos said that one former officer stated in his written amnesty application that three of the interrogators lifted Biko and ran his head into the wall, like a battering ram. Snyman said he recalled no such incident.

Snyman largely blamed his commander, Col. Pieter Goosen, for concocting the discredited cover-up. He also said Goosen was responsible for not getting medical care to Biko until 24 hours after he was struck in the head. Goosen died in 1988.

Biko's family said it was disappointed with Snyman's testimony. "I think he's lying even more than he did in the inquest," said Biko's widow, Ntsiki.

Biko, whose movement advocated black liberation through self-awareness and self-reliance, was perhaps the most prominent anti-apartheid leader in South Africa when he died. Most older African National Congress leaders were in prison at the time.

The apartheid government saw his movement as a threat, especially after it inspired the 1976 student uprising in Soweto.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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