The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Timol family have accused Joao Rodrigues, the apartheid cop who is alleged to have been the last person to see Ahmed Timol alive, of holding back the truth in his testimony at the inquest into Timol’s death.
Tuesday marked the second day of Rodrigues’ testimony. As the day wore on, the former Security Branch sergeant, appeared to grow weary, but stuck to his statement that Timol, an anti-apartheid activist in the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP), jumped to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square in 1971.
John Vorster Square is now known as Johannesburg Central police station.
“I’m trying to do my best, I’m 78 [years old] and we’re talking about an incident that happened 46 years ago,” Rodrigues testified on Tuesday at the Pretoria high court where the inquest is taking place.
Advocate Howard Varney, representing the Timol family, said shortly before court adjourned late on Tuesday afternoon that it was impossible Rodrigues had seen no injuries on Timol’s face prior to his alleged fall.
Varney relied on evidence provided to the inquest from two different forensic pathologists last week who said that Timol’s jaw had been crushed and the left side of skull severely fractured. The pathologists, Dr Shakeera Holland and Dr Steve Naidoo, said that the injuries to Timol’s jaw would have been visible before the fall.
But when Rodrigues denied that he had seen any wounds on Timol, Varney disputed him.
“I put it to you that you must have seen injuries and on this score you have fabricated a version that is false,” Varney said to Rodrigues.
Advocate Torie Pretorius, representing the NPA, agreed with Varney’s argument. Pretorius had cross-examined Rodrigues prior to Varney. He said that the “biggest improbability” in the apartheid cop’s testimony was that Timol was able to pass by Rodrigues to jump out of the window.
Rodrigues, when he gave a statement to the police in 1971 on Timol’s death, was described as appearing “white as a sheet” and “very upset”. Pretorius pressed him on that description, but the former cop said it was Timol’s alleged jump that shocked him.
“I would suggest something very traumatic happened in that room and you don’t want to play open cards in court,” Pretorius countered.
But Rodrigues maintained he could only comment on what he saw.
Piecing together the truth
In court, Pretorius read an excerpt from Inside Boss, a book written by the late journalist Gordon Winter, and published in 1981. In the extract Pretorius read, Winter quotes a former apartheid cop who said Timol had fallen from the window by accident after security police dangled his body out the window as a form of intimidation. His body dropped when one of the policemen accidentally let go of his foot.
Yesterday, Rodrigues had referred to Timol’s death as an “accident” in court. Pretorius asked why he used the term, and Rodrigues responded that it suited the situation. The NPA advocate then read from the book towards the end of his cross-examination to argue that the intimidation used on Timol led to his accidental fall.
Last week, two pathologists gave another version of events, saying that Timol was likely barely conscious before the fall as a result of the skull fracture on the left side of his head.
The new chapters in Rodrigues’ story
New evidence came to light on Tuesday when Rodrigues told the court that he had been introduced to Timol prior to his death. Hans Gloy, a Security Branch interrogator who was in the room with Timol before Rodrigues entered, introduced the two men just before he left Rodrigues alone with Timol to “guard” him.
Rodrigues testified that Gloy described Timol as a “valuable witness” and said he must be closely-guarded. Gloy, and Captain JZ Van Niekerk, another police officer who was in the room with Timol, left Rodrigues to watch Timol because they were allegedly notified that more arrests had been made at that moment.
Prior to the statement on Tuesday, Rodrigues had maintained that he never been introduced to Timol and did not know his name. He had failed to disclose the meeting to the first inquest into Timol’s death in 1972.
At the 1972 inquest, he had also failed to mention to the magistrate presiding over that inquest, Magistrate De Villiers, that he had received threats on his and his family’s lives from members of the Security Branch.
On Monday, Rodrigues testified at the current inquest that Security Branch police had “pressurised” him into making a false statement that he had physically fought with Timol prior to the 29-year-old’s death. He said he refused to make the statement, and on Tuesday testified that “death threats” had been made against him in response by the apartheid cops.
When asked by Judge Billy Mothle, who is presiding over the present inquest, on why he didn’t tell De Villiers about the threats, Rodrigues responded: “I don’t know”.
Rodrigues often testified that he “cannot remember” or “cannot comment” on certain questions because 46 years had passed since Timol’s death. His responses drew frustration from those watching the proceedings.
Moments before court adjourned, anti-apartheid veteran and former Timol family lawyer George Bizos startled the court when he rose to speak. Bizos asked that he be allowed to cross-examine Rodrigues on Wednesday to ask pointed questions about the extract from Inside Boss. The 88-year-old said there were 10 pages from the book relevant to the court proceedings. Judge Mothle responded that as Bizos is no longer representing the Timols, he should advise Varney on his concerns.
Rodrigues will appear in the witness box for the third day on Wednesday as his evidence continues to be scrutinised.