International Law

Cops Plead in Apartheid Underpants Case

A top cop, three other police officers and the former South Africa justice minister have pleaded guilty to poisoning a prominent black activist’s underpants in an attempted murder in 1989 that nearly succeeded. Under a plea bargain, they received suspended sentences of between five and 10 years.

The controversial case has reignited apartheid-era divisions, according to BBC and London Times accounts.

Critics contend that government officials in the former regime are being treated more harshly than those now in power. However, others say they simply want to know the truth, in apparent accord with the way a post-apartheid commission headed by Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu handled such offenses. It granted amnesty to those who admitted their crimes.

The target of the murder attempt, the Rev. Frank Chikane was secretary-general of the South Africa Council of Churches, a major player in the anti-apartheid struggle, at the time of the crime.

The plot involved a special unit of the police security branch, whose officers, with the approval of Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok and his police chief, Gen. Johann van der Merwe, got hold of Chikane’s suitcase at the Johannesburg Airport as he was about to leave for a trip to Namibia. They laced his underwear with a deadly poison, Paraxon, that nearly killed him.

“I was in a mess. My whole system was falling apart,” says Chikane, who suffered nausea, respiratory problems, abdominal pain, vomiting, muscular pains and body trembling and was flown home in a near-death state. “They just battled to keep me alive,” he said of those who treated him.

He said he didn’t want to see the defendants imprisoned but did want to know the truth. Chikane reportedly shook hands with both Vlok and van der Merwe after the sentencing.

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