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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Apartheid Truth Panel Faces Tough Murder Case

PRETORIA, South Africa -- South Africa's truth commission opened one of its toughest hearings on Monday to decide whether to free the men who murdered communist leader Chris Hani in 1993, nearly wrecking the transition from apartheid.

Polish immigrant Janusz Walus, the gunman, and right-wing politician Clive Derby-Lewis, the mastermind, have applied for amnesty and will speak publicly about their deed for the first time at the Pretoria amnesty hearing.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by President Nelson Mandela to expose apartheid-era crimes and offer forgiveness in return for confession, has the power to grant amnesty if the two can prove political motives.

But Chris Hani's family and the South African Communist Party fiercely oppose amnesty for the unlikely partners in crime, whose original death sentences were commuted to life in prison.

"No amnesty," "Derby-Lewis must serve life" and "You are murderers" read placards held by the supporters of Chris Hani's family, who gathered outside the imposing City Hall for the hearing.

Hani's death Easter Sunday in 1993 hit South Africa like an earthquake during one of the hardest periods of the long and laborious negotiations that ended in free elections a year later.

Hani, the former leader in exile of the African National Congress's armed wing, was an immensely popular figure who was eclipsed only by Mandela himself.

Many observers even believed that he could have succeeded Mandela as president.

Walus, a fierce anti-communist who left military-ruled Poland for South Africa in 1981, shot Hani four times outside his home in a middle-class suburb near Johannesburg.

White neighbor Rheta Harmse saw Walus, memorized the number of his red Ford Laser and alerted police, who arrested him 10 minutes later.

The evidence led to Derby-Lewis, a former member of the all-white parliament for the far-right Conservative Party.

His wife Gaye also stood trial but was acquitted, and the court found insufficient evidence to back up claims of a far-right conspiracy to kill South Africa's black leaders.

The Pretoria hearing, coming days after the commission granted amnesty to notorious state hit-squad killer Dirk Coetzee, brought grey-haired and grey-suited followers of Derby-Lewis together with Hani's wife and two daughters.

George Bizos, a defense lawyer in the 1964 trial that saw Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment, will oppose amnesty.

South African newspapers said Bizos would produce at the hearing hitherto unheard statements by Walus and Derby-Lewis to try to show that the two applicants had previously not told the whole truth -- a precondition for amnesty.

The Hani family also says Walus and Derby-Lewis have failed to explain the role of Gaye Derby-Lewis and lied when they said they killed Hani -- who by then had already committed himself to a negotiated peace -- because he was seen as a legitimate military target.