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Biko defied police during interrogation, former cop says

September 11, 1997

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (AP) _ Black activist Steve Biko was acting ``stubborn and too big for his boots″ by defying police interrogators who killed him 20 years ago, an ex-officer acknowledged Thursday.

The ``state order″ in the 1970s was for blacks to obey whites, Harold Snyman told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ``This was the thinking and the way things were done.″

Snyman, 69, and the four officers he commanded are seeking amnesty from the commission for the 1977 beating death of Biko.

One of South Africa’s most popular black leaders, Biko died on Sept. 12, 1977, six days after suffering brain damage during the police interrogation.

He had preached that blacks should be proud of their culture and take control of their country. His short life _ he was 30 when he died _ was the subject of the 1987 film, ``Cry Freedom,″ with Biko portrayed by actor Denzel Washington.

Snyman and Daniel Siebert _ another policeman seeking amnesty _ testified Thursday that Biko was considered a prominent black leader who had to be neutralized.

During his second day of testimony, Snyman again came under intense questioning from George Bizos, the lawyer representing Biko’s family in opposing amnesty for the officers.

Snyman described how Biko, sleep-deprived and naked, sat down during the Sept. 6, 1977, interrogation, disobeying orders to remain standing. That, he said, prompted a scuffle in which Biko’s head hit a wall, leading to the fatal brain injury.

``And the feeling was that Biko was stubborn and too big for his boots for a black man?″ Bizos asked.

``That is correct,″ Snyman replied.

The Truth Commission, set up in 1995 to investigate apartheid-era political crimes, can grant amnesty for political crimes if the applicants make full confessions.

Bizos and Biko’s relatives say Snyman and the others are not coming entirely clean, just as they lied during a 1977 judicial inquest into Biko’s killing.

Snyman admitted Wednesday the officers falsified the date of the interrogation at the inquest, saying it occurred Sept. 7 rather than Sept. 6 to cover up the 24-hour delay in having a doctor examine Biko.

Through sharp cross-examination and sarcasm, Bizos tried Thursday to carve away at layers of discrepancy from Snyman’s testimony in one of the highest-profile cases to come before the Truth Commission.

Asking about Biko’s decision to sit after being told to stand, Bizos asked: ``Was your impression that (Biko) was a proud man and your self-respect would have been insulted if he had sat on a chair?″

``He was a high-profile leader of black-consciousness organization, and by sitting down he maintained his own status,″ answered Snyman, commander over four other policemen also seeking amnesty for killing Biko.

Snyman, who said he witnessed the scuffle but did not participate, claimed he heard Biko’s head hit the wall but did not see it.

``What is the difference in the sound of elbows and knees hitting the wall and the head hitting the wall?″ Bizos asked.

Snyman replied, ``I don’t know.″

Bizos cornered Snyman on his alleged political motives, forcing him to admit he could not name one politician of the then-ruling National Party who sanctioned torture.

``Yes, but pressure was put on us to break down the individuals in interrogation ... by legal means, but irregularities may have been used,″ Snyman said.

The hearing was recessed until December, when the remaining three officers are expected to offer their testimony.

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