World

South Africa court ruling paves way for trial into 1971 killing of black activist

A former South African police officer will face trial over the 1971 killing of an anti-apartheid activist after a court ruling that could lead to the prosecution of similar crimes.

Ahmed Timol was among 73 to die in police custody from 1963-1990

Imtiaz Cajee, nephew of Ahmed Timol, poses in 2017 with a picture of his uncle on the book he wrote about the case. An appeal by a police officer implicated in Timol's death was denied on Monday. (The Associated Press)

A former South African police officer will face trial over the 1971 killing of an anti-apartheid activist after a court ruling that could lead to the prosecution of similar crimes .

The high court in Johannesburg on Monday dismissed 80-year-old Joao Rodrigues's application for a permanent stay of prosecution.

An inquiry had been reopened into the death of Ahmed Timol, who police said jumped to his death from a Johannesburg police station where opponents of white minority rule were often held.

Timol's family argued he was tortured and killed. A court agreed, saying evidence suggested that Timol was pushed out the window, and paving the way for Rodrigues to face trial. Rodrigues has said the activist dove out of the window before he could stop him.

A National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson said Monday's ruling affirms that people who committed crimes during the apartheid era cannot dodge prosecution on the basis of how long ago the crimes took place.

The prosecuting authority now should pursue perpetrators of other apartheid-era crimes, said the Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC), which made submissions in the Timol case.

"I'm hopeful that this case will pave the way for other such crimes to be prosecuted," SALC's Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh said.

Reconciliation commission listed hundreds of cases

Timol's nephew, Imtiaz Cajee, said his family was fortunate to have Timol's inquest reopened. He also urged the NPA to prosecute similar cases in which families of victims had not found justice.

Timol was one of 73 political detainees who died in police custody in South Africa between 1963 and 1990. A small plaque inside the lobby of the Johannesburg building where Timol died lists their names. White minority rule ended in the country with all-race elections in 1994.

The city skyline is seen in 2017 from the 10th floor of the Johannesburg Central Police Station. Police long alleged Timol died in 1971 when he leapt from that floor. (Denis Farrell/Associated Press)

Nearly 300 apartheid-era cases had been referred to the NPA for prosecution by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was chaired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and investigated apartheid-era atrocities and granted amnesty to some accused perpetrators.

Other apartheid-era police officers implicated in Timol's death have died over the years.