Truth commission faces Hague court

The families of murdered anti-apartheid activists are planning to challenge South Africa's controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the International Court of Justice in the Hague over its right to grant amnesty to the perpetrators of human rights crimes.

The move follows the release this week of Dirk Coetzee, a self-confessed state assassin of ANC lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, who was stabbed 40 times and had his throat cut in 1981.

Mr Coetzee should have been sentenced today for the murder in Durban High Court but the TRC, a cornerstone of South Africa's negotiated transition to democracy, intervened on Monday by fast-tracking Mr Coetzee's amnesty application for Mr Griffiths murder.

The commission, charged with exposing the truth about the apartheid era, has the power to offer amnesty to perpetrators in return for full disclosure of their crimes and proof they were politically motivated. The decision to grant Mr Coetzee's amnesty is expected to be the first of many.

Mr Coetzee, the former commander of the notorious apartheid-era Vlakplaas police hit squad, is today back at his desk at the National Intelligence Agency, now in the pay of the ANC government.

The ANC has looked after him since he defected to them in 1989 and blew the whistle on the murders and atrocities committed by the National Party's state security forces. Mr Mxenge's family see the ANC's support of Coetzee as a betrayal of a man who gave his life for the struggle.

Today, the Mxenge family will appeal to the Durban High Court to overturn the TRC's decision, though two other High Court challenges to the TRC have already failed.

Yesterday, Cyril Morolo, who last year represented the Mxenge family and others (including the relatives of murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko) in a failed bid to have the TRC's amnesty provisions declared unconstitutional, said he was now taking the families' cases into the international arena.

"The TRC's amnesty powers contravene international law," he said. "We want other countries to recognise it and for these amnesties to be declared null and void. We shall reach our goal."

He admitted funding the international legal challenge would be a problem.Mr Morolo said he had approached several international human rights groups but all said they had no money to fund the challenge.

"People don't want to disappoint President Mandela," said Mr Morolo, referring to the president's support for the TRC.

Mr Morolo plans to ask the international courts to try men like Mr Coetzee, since the TRC was preventing the South African courts from doing so.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the TRC said he was not surprised. "It was clear from the beginning the whole process was going to be marked by legal challenges from every possible quarter." Yesterday, Dirk Coetzee said he was disappointed that the Mxenge family was challenging the amnesty ruling. He said it was a pity they were "so full of hatred".