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  • Imam Haron Inquest: Family lawyers say apartheid cop was an evasive witness

    Imam Haron Inquest: Family lawyers say apartheid cop was an evasive witness

    Johannes Hendrik Burger, the last living policeman from the time of Imam Abdullah Haron’s detention, opened up a bit more on his second day of cross-examination. However, the family’s legal representatives said they intend to make several damning submissions about his testimony in the reopened inquest and his actions in September 1969.

    READ: As it happened: Imam Haron Inquest – Day 7

    ‘EVASIVE EVIDENCE’ AT HARON INQUEST

    Burger first took the stand for the NPA on Monday, 14 November – the sixth day of the inquest. In his testimony, he insisted that the first time he became aware members of the apartheid security branch abused political detainees was in September 2020.

    In 2020, he gave his statement for this inquest to the investigating officer of the Haron cold case – Lieutenant-Colonel Deon Peterson – who showed the witness illustrations of the Imam’s 27 bruises and one fractured rib.

    Burger was a 25-year-old constable when Haron was found dead in his Maitland cell on 27 September 1969 and would remain in the police force until 1997. He retired with the rank of captain and won many medals in his career, including one for combatting terrorism.

    READ: Imam Haron Inquest: Apartheid-era cop says he didn’t know the security branch tortured people

    Before he wrapped up his cross-examination of the witness, Advocate Howard Varney explained that the family’s legal representatives are required to make submissions to the court to help Judge Daniel Thulare reach his findings. “…and I should advise you that this is an inquest and not a criminal trial – there’s not going to be any convictions issued.”

    Varney said they will submit that Burger was aware of the security branch’s bad reputation and that he would have been aware they abused detainees and his claims about only learning this in September 2020 cannot be accepted.

    “We will also submit that your evidence that you were unaware that the security branch was a feared and elite unit within the former South African police was evasive evidence.

    “We will also submit on the probabilities, you and your colleagues in the Maitland Police Station in those last two weeks would have been aware that the Imam had been abused by the security branch, particularly after the three-day extraction by the security branch post-19 September.

    “And that you would have been aware that the pain and immobilization he was experiencing at that time was because of the abusive treatment he had received at the security branch,” said Varney.

    THE JUDGE WANTED TO KNOW IF WITNESS REMEMBERS IMAM HARON BEING IN PAIN

    At this point, Advocate Varney stood down and Judge Thulare prodded the 78-year-old with a few questions of his own.  Thulare said his questions were meant to give the witness a fair opportunity to address concerns that had arisen from his testimony.

    First, he asked Burger if there were still any fears about revealing information about the apartheid years and the witness said no and added that his testimony has been a weight off his back.

    In his testimony, Burger noted the Imam’s condition worsened considerably before his death. He described how the deceased struggled with walking and dragged his feet.

    Judge Thulare said what Burger described as deterioration was a man in pain, according to the medical evidence heard by the court on previous days. He went further and explained the Imam’s various injuries to the witness and pointed to them on the autopsy models of the deceased’s body in court.

    The witness said he cannot understand how the doctors of the time did not pick up on Imam Haron’s injuries. Judge Thulare pointedly said, “That is the issue; the police did not take him to the doctor.”

    “You opened [his cell], he is having difficulty breathing, pain; he has got sore muscles – you saw nothing?”

    Burger said his previous description of Haron’s struggles with walking clearly depicted a man who must have been in pain and he suggested that perhaps he wasn’t expressing himself correctly.

    “It is the first time I hear you say anything about pain. Did he appear to be a man in pain because this is exactly what I am trying to establish from you,” said Judge Thulare.

    The witness said Imam Haron never mentioned being in pain whenever he asked him what was wrong and Judge Thulare reminded him that in his 1969 affidavit he wrote that the “deceased did not have complaints and appeared to be in good health.”

    After the questions were put to Burger by the Judge, Advocate Varney added more submissions to the court.

    He suggested that on the basis of probabilities, the witness and his colleagues at Maitland police station were well aware Imam Haron was sick and in pain and they were negligent in not providing him with medical attention.

    “Mr Burger, if it had merely been a question of negligence then the crime arising is known as culpable homicide but if it was an intentional act to keep the doctor away from medical attention – knowing his state of health, knowing him to be sick and in pain – then they would have been aware and anticipated that his health would decline and that he may die. That then may convert the crime in question to murder,” said Varney.

    Throughout these submissions, the witness insisted he stood by the testimony he gave during the inquest.

    Burger also said he is the only one still alive and it is now easy to pile the blame on him. On at least two occasions during his cross-examination, the family’s legal representatives told the witness they would have preferred to have spoken to his superiors at the time but it is impossible.

    READ: Letters on a biscuit box: How messages were smuggled from Imam Haron’s jail cell

    TORTURE WAS UBIQUITOUS

    Other witnesses on Day 8 of the Imam Haron inquest included a psychoanalyst, Diane Sandler, and a former Robben Island prisoner, Robert Wilcox.

    Sandler co-authored the book Detention and Torture in South Africa, which was published in 1987. She said it was the first systemic study of torture of political detainees.

    In the research for the book, 158 detainees’ experiences were recorded. The data revealed that torture was ubiquitous and a staple of political detention in the apartheid years.

    The most common form of torture was physical assault. In Cape Town, more than a third of the political detainees named Sergeant Spyker van Wyk as their torturer – he is the one believed to be Imam Haron’s chief abuser.

    Robert Wilcox, who was detained by the security branch in Cape Town for months before he was taken to Pietermaritzburg for trial in 1971, gave a graphic account of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the security branch at the instruction of van Wyk.

    Wilcox spent six years imprisoned on Robben Island. One of the memories that stood out for him from his time on the island was when prisoners shared stories of their torture. He said prisoners unanimously agreed that they would rather spend five years on Robben Island than five months in solitary confinement under the security branch.

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    Khamisi
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