South Africa grants amnesty to apartheid assassin

Dirk Coetzee, the self-confessed state assassin who became the first insider to expose the hit-squad activities of the country's old security forces, was granted amnesty yesterday for the brutal murder of an ANC lawyer.

Coetzee, former commander of the notorious Vlakplaas security police unit who defected to the ANC in 1989, was to have been sentenced on Friday for the murder of Griffiths Mxenge. Mr Mxenge was stabbed 40 times and had his throat slit in 1981 when he stopped to help a motorist who appeared to have broken down.

Coetzee has long since admitted that he took part in the murder of Mr Mxenge and other ANC activists. He had already applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty - on the grounds that he regarded it his duty as policeman involved in the struggle against the ANC. The TRC is the body charged with exposing the truth about South Africa's shameful past.

Yesterday, the TRC angered Mr Mxenge's family by choosing to deal with Coetzee's amnesty application for Mr Mxenge's murder early, to pre-empt his sentencing for the crime at Durban High Court on Friday.

The Mxenge family has been one of the TRC's fiercest critics since it evolved as part of South Africa's negotiated transition to black majority rule. The TRC - a foundation of the political compromise reached between the National Party and the ANC - has the power to grant amnesty to perpetrators who disclose all information about their crimes and prove they were politically motivated.

The Mxenge family says it feels "betrayed" by the ANC leadership which looked after Coetzee when he fled to London in 1989 and later gave him a job when he returned to South Africa. The family says the TRC is proving a "perpetrators' paradise".

Last year, the Mxenges and Ntsiki Biko, widow of murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, challenged the TRC's constitutionality in the courts. But they failed to convince the Constitutional Court that the TRC robbed them of their right to justice. Once a perpetrator has won amnesty, all civil and criminal action is barred.

Portugal's ambassador to Pretoria, Vasco Valente, has been expelled from South Africa. Instead of "returning to sender" a letter from President Nelson Mandela addressed to Indonesia's President Suharto, which was wrongly delivered to the Portuguese embassy in Pretoria, he gave it to the press.

In the letter, Mr Mandela asks his Indonesian counterpart to release the imprisoned military leader of the Frente Revolucionaria do Timor Leste Independente (Fretilin), Jose Alexandre (Xanana) Gusmao.