Amnesty application may reopen Steve Biko inquest


PRESIDENT Mandela's government will consider reopening the inquest into the death of the black consciousness leader, Steve Biko, if a pending Truth Commission hearing on applications for amnesty from five of his self confessed assailants leads to new evidence.

The undertaking to do so, given by the Minister of Justice, Mr Dullah Omar, in an interview with the Johannesburg Sunday Independent, follows last week's disclosure that the former security policemen have admitted culpability for Biko's death in detention nearly 29 years ago.

The five men, including the leader of the interrogation team, Mr Harold Synman, have applied for amnesty for assault and culpable homicide. They do not acknowledge guilt for murder, insisting that they never intended to kill Biko.

On the face of it, however, even their partial admissions appear to challenge the verdict in the initial inquest, in which Magistrate M.J. Prins found that Biko had suffered a fatal head injury during a "scuffle" with his interrogators and that no one was to blame "on available evidence".

The admissions by the five appear to stand the original verdict on its head. They also seem belatedly to confirm the concluding submission of counsel for the Biko family to the inquest court that the black leader's injuries were "inflicted deliberately" and that those responsible were guilty of "at least the crime of culpable homicide".

There is an important precedent for reopening an inquest, former President F.W. de Klerk having ordered the reopening of the inquest into the June 1985 killing of a political activist Matthew Goniwe and three of his comrades after a military signal ordering Goniwe's "permanent removal" from society was leaked to the press in April 1992.

The findings of the original and reopened inquests are instructive the first inquest court found that Goniwe and his comrades had been killed by "persons unknown"; the second concluded that he had been murdered by security forces.

There is another link between the Biko and Goniwe deaths: Mr Synman, a man with a penchant for dark glasses, has also applied for amnesty for the killing of Goniwe and his three friends.

Biko's widow Ntsiki, has until recently opposed any idea of granting an amnesty to the men responsible for her husband's death. She has agreed with the Azanian People's Organisation - which identifies itself as the custodian of the black consciousness philosophy espoused by Biko - that granting an amnesty contravenes the right of relatives to justice.

The Biko family, however, are reassessing the situation in the light of recent developments and are reportedly consulting with two of the dead leader's comrades from the 1970s: the Rev Dr Barney Pityana, who now heads the Human Rights Commission, and Mr Peter Jones, who was detained with Biko and who, like him, was beaten up by his interrogators.