South Africa case is opening doors to grim apartheid deaths

The inquest into whether anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol jumped or was pushed to his death from that tenth-floor window in a police station on Oct. 27, 1971, opens wounds anew.

JOHANNESBURG — Room 1026 of Johannesburg’s Central Police Station looks like any midcentury office in need of a fresh coat of paint: Dusty vertical blinds hang in the window, opening onto an unremarkable view of a chip shop, a lunchtime favorite for police officers.

But for the past several weeks, South Africans have been riveted by an inquest into whether anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol jumped or was pushed to his death from that tenth-floor window on Oct. 27, 1971.

The hearings have dredged up dark memories of one of the country’s most infamous landmarks and legal experts say the case could set a precedent for investigating similar deaths.

For many who lived through apartheid, the system of white-minority rule that ended in the early 1990s, the building remains an ominous symbol of racial and political oppression in a country still struggling to find justice for the atrocities of a not-so-distant past.

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For decades, the Johannesburg Central Police Station was known as John Vorster Square, named after the apartheid leader who oversaw the sentencing of Nelson Mandela to life in prison. Its top two floors were home to the notorious Security Branch, where anti-apartheid activists were detained and tortured. Eight people, including Timol, died while in custody in the building.

Recently, Timol’s family recommended that South Africa’s government open a new criminal investigation into his death, saying police covered up having assaulted him during his detention by pushing him to his death and calling it suicide.

“What was the Security Branch covering up? It could only have been two things: the torture, and the fact that there was no suicide,” Howard Varney, an attorney for the Timol family, said during his closing arguments during the inquest at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. “If there wasn’t a suicide, it must have been murder.”

Timol, a member of the South African Communist Party, was arrested at a police roadblock on Oct. 22, 1971. He died five days later after being held in Room 1026, one of 73 political detainees who died in police custody in South Africa between 1963 and 1990.

A 1972 inquest into Timol’s death upheld the police assertion that…

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