Ex-S. Africa leader to be tried for snubbing truth commission Order to appear in court is issued to Botha, 81, architect of apartheid

January 08, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Former South African President Pieter W. Botha -- a chief figure during some of the worst human rights violations of the apartheid era -- was ordered yesterday to appear in court for his refusal to testify to the commission that is trying to lay to rest this country's apartheid past.

Botha, 81, is a key witness as a former president, prime minister and chairman of the national security council, which advised the white minority government on strategy during the 1980s.

For the new South Africa, under its first democratically elected black majority government, the criminal prosecution of a former president of the apartheid regime has a profound political resonance. It especially alarms the right-wing Afrikaner minority, which already sees itself victimized and weakened.

An 11th-hour appeal for Botha to change his mind and cooperate with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- which he has likened to "a circus" -- was made by Alec Borraine, the commission's deputy chairman, immediately after the summons was issued.

"We are making this final, final appeal in the hope that he will see reason," said Borraine at a news conference. "If he refuses to do this, the law must take its course. No one is above the law, neither the lowliest nor the highest in the land."

Two senior police officers drove from Cape Town to Botha's retirement home in a town called Wilderness to deliver the court papers, issued by Frank Kahn, the Western Cape attorney general.

The former president, who has heart problems, high blood pressure and recently underwent hip replacement surgery, accepted the summons personally, in contrast to his refusal to meet with truth commission officials when they tried to deliver earlier subpoenas to him.

He is scheduled to appear in court in the Western Cape town of George on Jan. 23, and faces the possibility of two years in prison and a fine of up to $4,000.

Kahn, the Western Cape attorney general, said: "I considered all the circumstance of this case. I have also perused the documents, which run into hundreds of pages, about which the TRC want to question Mr. Botha in public.

Prosecution 'warranted'

"And I have decided -- and this is my considered view -- that to prosecute in this matter is warranted not only in law but in the public interest."

The ruling African National Congress welcomed the decision to take criminal action against Botha, whose own National Party said the attorney general had no choice but to issue the summons.

Commentators have contrasted the commission's cautious handling of Botha, who has defied two of the panel's subpoenas, with the tough sessions it held with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

The former wife of President Nelson Mandela heard hours of unflattering testimony as the commission investigated the township violence that swirled around her in the late 1980s as the apartheid era came to an end.

Conversely, right-wing Afrikaners portray the prosecution of Botha as strengthening their conviction that the truth commission has been conducting a witch hunt against the minority that introduced apartheid. The commission failed to obtain counter-balancing testimony on the excesses of the "freedom fighters" who fought against the system of racial segregation, Afrikaners say.

Botha's written response

Botha remained silent yesterday, but in an interview with the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport last weekend he repeated his claim that he had done nothing wrong. He also said he had given the commission an 1,800-page response to questions on the working of the state security council. He told the newspaper he would appear in court if summoned.

The commission is investigating gross human rights violations during the apartheid years in the hope that the disclosures will help heal the nation's wounds. The commission offered amnesty to perpetrators willing to make full confessions and made reparation to some victims.

Deputy Commission Chairman Borraine said: "It is just such a pity that it has to come down to the wire like this, instead of him appearing before the commission. What is at stake is not that one should be punished or sentenced in court, but whether we can get accountability and reconciliation in South Africa."

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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