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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Key Acquittal Likely In Apartheid Killings

DURBAN, South Africa -- The judge in former South African Defense Minister Magnus Malan's murder trial acquitted six co-defendants and shredded the prosecution case Thursday, making it likely Malan also would be found innocent.


Malan is the highest ranking apartheid-era official so far to face criminal charges linked to efforts by white leaders to fight government opponents.


Judge Jan Hugo acquitted the first six of the 16 defendants, all of them Zulu nationalists of the Inkatha Freedom Party who received special military training in the 1980s.


All six had been accused of carrying out a 1987 attack that killed 13 people in the KwaMakutha black township south of Durban. Murder charges against two of the six were dropped during the trial, but they remained defendants on conspiracy charges.


"Accused one through six have not been proven guilty of any of the offenses charged and they are acquitted," Hugo said to cheers and clapping from Inkatha officials in the public gallery.


Hugo also absolved Inkatha official M.Z. Khumalo of any blame in the township massacre, but Thursday's session ended before he completed his ruling on remaining charges against Khumalo and the other nine defendants, including Malan. The rest of the verdict will be read Friday.


Earlier, Hugo criticized two key state witnesses as weak and unreliable and said the killings Malan and others were accused of planning lacked any official connection to the military.


His comments tore apart the basis of the state's case -- that Malan and top military leaders set up and trained a Zulu nationalist hit squad to eliminate government enemies.


"This was not an officially planned or authorized military exercise," Hugo said of the KwaMakutha attack.


Malan and 15 other defendants faced charges including murder and conspiracy linked to the KwaMakutha killings in the biggest political trial so far of the post-apartheid era.


If Malan and other former military leaders are acquitted, many blacks will say the judicial system failed and that apartheid criminals were freed unfairly.


Whites, particularly former police and soldiers under pressure to confess apartheid-era crimes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will see an acquittal as a sign they can avoid giving such testimony and evade prosecution.


The truth panel has the power to grant amnesty to people who confess their crimes and prove they were committed for political reasons. Those who refuse to give evidence to the commission remain vulnerable to prosecution.


Journalists and spectators jammed the Durban Supreme Court for the verdict, while about 50 armed policemen stood guard outside.


In his ruling, Hugo rejected much of the evidence from former military intelligence officer J.P. Opperman, who admitted planning the operation that led to the massacre. He described Opperman as having "ascribed himself greater knowledge and expertise than he had."


"It is unlikely he would have been entrusted with an operation of this nature," Hugo said.