Biko police to face trial

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The Independent Online
FOUR FORMER South African policemen involved in the 1977 murder of the anti-apartheid fighter Steve Biko are likely to face trial after being refused amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But Jeffrey Benzien, a police torturer who demonstrated his gruesome "wet-bag" method of extracting confessions at a televised TRC hearing in 1997, was yesterday granted amnesty.

Mr Benzien, still a serving policeman, was granted amnesty by the TRC for the killing in 1987 of Ashley Kriel, a Cape Town activist in the African National Congress.

The TRC, which is empowered to pardon politically motivated human-rights crimes under apartheid, said the policemen involved in Biko's death did not tell the truth about the killing when they appeared before the amnesty committee.

The commission said it found no political motive behind the murder of the black consciousness leader, who suffered brain damage during interrogation. Biko died six days after being beaten, then driven naked and bleeding 600 miles from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria in the back of a police van. "None of the applicants impressed us as a credible witness. They have clearly conspired to conceal the truth," the TRC said.

The commission's decision theoretically clears the way for Biko's family to take legal action against the officers, Daniel Siebert, Rubin Marx and Jacobus Beneke. The fourth officer, Harold Snyman, has died. Their commander, Gideon Nieuwoudt, is in jail for other human rights crimes.

Biko's son, Nkosinathi, yesterday welcomed the decision but did not indicate whether the family would press charges. Under TRC rules, evidence from amnesty hearings cannot be used in a criminal trial.

Mr Benzien, whose crimes the TRC ruled had been politically motivated, drew worldwide attention at his amnesty hearing when he demonstrated his "wet-bag" technique with a former victim, ANC MP Tony Yengeni - a dampened cloth placed over the subject's face and gradually tightened from behind.