Setting killers free in S. Africa Harmony: To resolve a violent past, South Africa is willing to exchange the truth for the freedom of "political" killers.


PRETORIA, South Africa -- The sheer cold-blooded calculation with which two killers gunned down Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993, in an attempt to prevent the transfer of power to South Africa's black majority, may now help the murderers walk free.

It is an unintentional irony for the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as it considers forgiving the most dreadful atrocities of the apartheid era: If the murder was indeed "political," the white, right-wing extremists who are the confessed killers can be granted amnesty.

To decide the amnesty issue, the commission must judge whether three tests have been met: that the crime was indeed fTC political, that it was in some sense in line with the political aims, and that the figures seeking amnesty have fully disclosed their actions. On that basis the commission has already granted amnesty to 47 people -- and denied it to nearly 2,500 others.

But possibility of Hani's murderers walking free in exchange for simply telling the details of their crime is a troubling one in a country with a soaring crime rate and struggling to build confidence in its justice system.

"The problem is, it is undermining respect for the principle of justice," said Steven Friedman, director of the Center for Policy Studies, who has campaigned to require an expression of remorse and some form of compensation for families of victims. "Truth does not automatically lead to reconciliation."

He cited the case of Brian Mitchell, a former police officer granted amnesty for his involvement in the killing of 20 villagers. Mitchell has pledged to spend three days a week for the rest of his life doing social work in the victims' community.

"At least we would be on firmer ground linking amnesty to a process in which a person is saying: 'Look, what I did is wrong and I want to try to correct it,' " Friedman says. "It becomes easier for people to respect the process."

Remorse is not a prerequisite for amnesty because the drafters of the statute decided it would be too difficult to judge whether it was genuine.

"How do you test remorse?" asked Denzil Potgeiter, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission who helped draft the legislation. "It's not really practical." Parliament decided that full disclosure was "a better indication that you take some responsibility for what you have done."

"I am convinced this is the most effective way to deal with the past and somehow not just walk away from it," Potgeiter said.

But this is sometimes difficult for society to accept, as can be seen during the hearings in the Hani case at Pretoria's old City Hall.

There is scant evidence of reconciliation in that room.

On one side of an auditorium sit the killers' supporters, all white, all favoring forgiveness. On the other sits Hani's widow, Limpho Hani, with her daughters Lindiwe and Nomakwezi, surrounded by outraged sympathizers, all black, all demanding retribution.

Hoots of derision and bursts of applause alternate between the two sides, detracting from the restraint of a legal hearing and contributing to a sense of confrontation.

On the floodlighted stage, seated at three white covered tables against a black curtain, are the two killers, the Hani family lawyers opposing the amnesty applications, and the committee members who will decide the killers' fate. They all follow the testimony of how and why Hani was killed April 10, 1993, -- setting off a wave of violence that left 54 people dead -- and why his assassins believe they should now walk free.

Clive Derby-Lewis, a smooth-talking politician of the ultra-right Afrikaner Conservative Party, was the mastermind. He supplied the murder weapon, a stolen 9 mm Z88 pistol with a silencer.

The man who pulled the trigger was Janusz Walus, an anti-Communist Polish immigrant, sallow-faced and crop-haired, who shot Hani at point-blank range on the driveway of his home.

Both were sentenced to death for the murder, but the government of President Nelson Mandela has outlawed the death penalty and the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

Derby-Lewis -- the only one of the pair to testify so far -- has expressed sorrow to Limpho Hani, who sits daily in the front row glowering at her husband's assassins. Her chief attorney, George Bizos, argues against freeing them.

'Nothing personal'

"I do not expect the Hani family to forgive me," Derby-Lewis said. "There was nothing personal in our attack. If anything, it was an indication of his importance and status."

Walus told police after his arrest: "I am the last to cry for him. He was the leader of the Communists in this country and I hated him for that."

Hani was chosen as the victim because he was a high-profile personality regarded as a potential future president.

According to Derby-Lewis, the murder was intended to plunge the country into chaos, allowing the extreme right to seize control from the ruling white National Party of President F. W. de Klerk, who was preparing to hand over control to the black majority led by Mandela.

"We were ready for war," Derby-Lewis told the tribunal. "It was patently obvious to me that de Klerk was busy with the betrayal of the Afrikaner people."

Struck a 'blow for God'

Derby-Lewis was also driven by religious fervor. Justifying the selection of Hani for assassination, he wrote that his death would "strike a blow for almighty God and Christianity against the anti-Christ communism in the form of the leader of the South African Communist Party."

But with amnesty in mind, he stressed that while his "duty is to almighty God," the driving motivation for the Hani murder was political.

"Derby-Lewis has been well advised by his lawyers," said Friedman, of the Center for Policy Studies. "He is doing what he should be doing in order to comply with the formula [for amnesty], but it creates somewhat different consequences for people who are trying to restore confidence and respect for justice."

Pub Date: 8/20/97

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