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Five former South African policemen admit to killing Biko

January 28, 1997

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Five former police officers plan to seek amnesty for the 1977 killing of activist Steve Biko, whose death galvanized apartheid’s opponents and revealed to the world the brutality of the white-led government.

The officers will petition South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel led by retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and charged with investigating apartheid-era crimes.

Reports that five men planned to file an amnesty petition were published Monday in The Port Elizabeth Herald. Truth Commission spokeswoman Christelle Terreblanche confirmed that the panel was expecting amnesty applications related to Biko’s killing.

Biko, 30, died of untreated head injuries in a Pretoria prison on Sept. 12, 1977. The death _ the apparent result of a beating by police, although they denied it _ impassioned the anti-apartheid movement inside and outside South Africa, giving the cause its best-known rallying point after then-imprisoned activist Nelson Mandela.

A source close to the five former police officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the amnesty applications would assert that Biko was ``handled robustly,″ but that there never was any intention to kill him.

The Herald identified the former officers as Col. Harold Snyman, who led the team that interrogated Biko; Lt. Col. Gideon Niewoudt, a detective sergeant at the time; Ruben Marx, a warrant officer; Daantjie Siebert, a captain; and Johan Beneke, a warrant officer.

Detained without charge as a terrorist in Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean coast, Biko suffered head injuries there that left him frothing at the mouth and speechless. Despite his wounds, he was denied medical care and driven in the back of a police van nearly 700 miles to Pretoria, where he died three weeks after his arrest.

The charismatic black leader had developed a wide following during the early 1970s, urging South African blacks to take pride in their culture and to fight for control of their country.

At his funeral, pictures of his battered body were widely distributed and later published around the world.

``He was very broad-minded and working to unify all the black organizations,″ said Donald Woods, a white former newspaper editor whose friendship with Biko was depicted in the 1987 British film ``Cry Freedom.″

``It was a great tragedy that he was killed, but his death had enormous impact overseas,″ Woods said.

Soon after, the United States imposed an oil and arms embargo on South Africa.

The Truth Commission will investigate the death and decide whether to grant amnesty to the former police officers. The panel was given the power to grant amnesty in order to promote reconciliation after decades of white-minority rule, which ended in 1994 with all-race elections that made Mandela president.

Biko’s widow wants justice for her husband’s killers, not forgiveness. Last year, she and the families of two other apartheid victims went to South Africa’s highest court to challenge the commission’s right to forgive certain crimes.

The court rejected their application, saying amnesty was essential to learning the full truth about apartheid.

Former members of the police and army were reluctant to come forward with what they knew until last year, when the Truth Commission pardoned a white former police officer convicted in a criminal court of 11 political murders and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The commission since has been inundated with new amnesty applications.

``In the absence of evidence that would enable a prosecution, I prefer to see the truth come out at the Truth Commission,″ Woods said.

No one was convicted in Biko’s death, although an inquest concluded he probably had received fatal head injuries while being questioned by police.

Woods, who accompanied Biko’s widow to identify the body, recalled that it was covered with cuts and bruises. ``It was awful,″ he said.

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