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Botha Guilty of Ignoring Subpoena

August 21, 1998

GEORGE, South Africa (AP) _ Former President P.W. Botha, given a day in court his government denied thousands of opponents, was convicted Friday of ignoring a subpoena to testify about apartheid atrocities.

A black magistrate gave apartheid’s last hard-line president a one-year suspended jail sentence and ordered him to pay a $1,577 fine for ignoring the summons from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Magistrate Victor Lugaju could have sentenced the 82-year-old Botha to two years in prison, but said he took into account Botha’s age and frail health.

Lugaju criticized Botha for his refusal to cooperate with the commission that was investigating abuses, including murder and torture, carried out under his rule.

``Right through the proceedings, the accused has shown no remorse,″ Lugaju said in his ruling at the end of a trial that underscored South Africa’s simmering racial divisions.

State prosecutor Bruce Morrison had asked for a fine of $9,463, but because of Botha’s age, did not seek a prison term.

``Had the accused been 30 or 40 years younger, the state would have asked for imprisonment to be imposed,″ he said.

Truth Commission chairman Desmond Tutu told reporters in Atlanta that he felt sorry for Botha.

``He has been found guilty in an open court where he had the opportunity of being defended by lawyers of his own choice _ something he did not allow opponents at the time he was state president,″ the retired archbishop and Nobel laureate said.

Reading out a 50-minute judgment, Lugaju dismissed defense claims that the subpoena was technically flawed and accusations that the commission was biased against him.

``The commission went to great lengths to assist the accused and meet his requirements,″ the magistrate said.

Conservative whites sympathized with Botha’s complaint that the commission is conducting a witch hunt against their race, while many blacks see the panel as being too soft on top ministers in apartheid governments.

As Botha left the court building, about 30 supporters of the governing African National Congress jeered and waved placards demanding he be jailed.

``We can forgive him for the past. Send him to jail for his arrogance,″ read one.

ANC leaders welcomed the verdict. Referring to Nazi war trials at the end of World War II, ANC Southern Cape secretary Ismail Lavangee said Botha was lucky to remain free.

``For the fact that we are not pushing for Nuremburg-like trials in this country, Mr. Botha can consider himself fortunate,″ he said. ``We welcome the decision of the court. This is a vindication of persons committed to reconciliation.″

Botha declined to comment, but appeared relaxed and jovial in court as he chatted to friends and relatives. Defense lawyers said they would appeal. Botha was released on a bail of $8.

Bringing Botha to court was a vital test for the commission’s credibility as it prepares to submit a final report to President Nelson Mandela in October summing up its often painful expose of the country’s past.

Botha ruled with an iron fist for 11 years until 1989, when he was ousted in an internal party struggle after he suffered a stroke and was replaced by the more liberal F.W. de Klerk.

Daryl Swanepoel, spokesman for the National Party that Botha headed, criticized the commission for taking Botha to court.

``The action against Mr. Botha is evidence of an uneven-handed approach by the TRC with regard to dealing with the role players of the past,″ he said in a statement.

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