Mandela trial is halted by witness' kidnapping


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Mandela's trial on kidnapping and assault charges was abruptly halted yesterday when the prosecutor announced that one of the key witnesses against Mrs. Mandela had been kidnapped again.

Prosecutor Jan Swanepoel surprised the courtroom on Day 3 of the Mandela trial when he said he had received a report that Gabriel Pelo Mekgwe was abducted from a Methodist Church facility Sunday night.

"I don't know if that is true," he said. "But if it is true, it is a very serious development. Obviously it will have an intimidating effect on other witnesses."

Mr. Mekgwe was among four youths allegedly kidnapped in late 1988 and taken to Mrs. Mandela's home in the black township of Soweto.

The state charges that Mrs. Mandela and her personal bodyguards viciously beat the four youths, one of whom was found dead in an open field a few days after they disappeared.

Mrs. Mandela's chief bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, was convicted of murder last year, largely on the strength of testimony provided by the surviving victims.

All three had planned to testify in the Mandela trial, which began last week, but Mr. Swanepoel said he is no longer sure of his plan to present witnesses.

"I have to ask the court for time. I cannot simply proceed and have my witnesses come in here if their lives are in danger," Mr. Swanepoel said. He asked for a one-day postponement to sort out the new developments, and Judge M. S. Stegmann ordered the trial halted shortly before noon.

Mr. Swanepoel said he received word of the kidnapping from a legal aid center that, along with the Methodist Church, was looking after the three plaintiffs. He said the young men were not under police protection of any kind because they themselves preferred the protection of the Methodist Church and the Legal Resources Center.

The reported kidnapping cast doubt on whether the state would be able to proceed with the trial of Mrs. Mandela. Eight people are charged in the case, but four failed to show up and are being sought by police.

One of the missing defendants brazenly appeared outside the courthouse and mingled in the crowd as the trial began last week.

A newspaper ran a picture of the man sitting on the courthouse steps and quoted him as saying he wanted to see what was going on.

With the disappearance of the four defendants -- all of them young men linked to her former bodyguard -- Mrs. Mandela was left standing trial with a 61-year-old man, a 36-year-old woman and an 18-year-old who comes to court in her black and white school uniform.

The elderly man was the driver on the night of the kidnapping, and the woman and her daughter worked at the Methodist home from which the youths were kidnapped.

Mrs. Mandela, speaking in a firm voice and dressed in a conservative green suit, pleaded not guilty yesterday to each of the eight counts against her -- four counts of kidnapping and four of assault.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Mandela's husband, Nelson, joined Frank Mdlalose, chairman of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, in a joint statement denouncing the ambush killing of 17 people in troubled Natal province Sunday night.

The victims were in two buses carrying Inkatha supporters home from a peace rally near Natal's capital of Pietermaritzburg.

At least 40 people have been killed in clashes between the backers of the two groups since Mr. Mandela and Chief Buthelezi signed a truce Jan. 29 and urged their supporters to lay down arms.

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