DRAWING on the testimony of various experts who gave evidence at the inquest last month into the death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron in 1969, ANWAR OMAR argues that there is only one conclusion that Judge Daniel Thulare can reach when the inquest resumes next year for a ruling.
The inquest into the death of Imam Abdullah Haron, which took place from November 7 to 16, 2022 in the Cape Town High Court commenced with the testimony of an aeronautics engineer and fall trajectory specialist, Thivash Moodley, who conclusively demonstrated that the bruises on the late Imam’s body did not match that of someone who fell down a flight of stairs, in terms of the type of bruises, where it was located on the Imam’s body, as well as when it occurred in terms of timing.
In fact, it seems that the narrative of ‘falling down a flight of stairs’ was totally fabricated. The absence of abrasions, the timing of the injuries, as well as the bruises between the lower limbs are completely inconsistent with falling down a staircase.
The inquest continued with Dr Itumeleng Molefe, the state-appointed forensic pathologist and Dr Segaran Ramalu Naidoo, the pathologist for the Haron family, both experts in their field debunking myocardial ischemia as the cause of death of the Imam, as well as linking the latter to a fall down a flight of stairs.
According to them, to conclusively prove that myocardial ischemia was indeed the cause of death, the forensic pathologist conducting the autopsy on 28 September 1969, would have had to open the arteries of the deceased to determine whether it was indeed blocked. This was not done and therefore myocardial ischemia cannot conclusively be considered as the cause of death of the Imam. They also found the link between the fall down the stairs and myocardial ischemia quite bizarre and not backed up by the physical evidence of the deceased.
Dr Naidoo’s testimony was quite damning and pointed out several shortcomings in the post-mortem performed by Dr T G Schwar, the apartheid state appointed pathologist who conducted the autopsy on the late Imam Haron in September 1969.
It is important to note that Dr Naidoo has, to date, conducted more than 10 000 similar autopsies. He described the various bruises on the Imam’s body in detail in terms of where they were located, how they were possibly inflicted, how much they had healed and thus approximately when they had occurred.
According to Dr Naidoo, the injuries were severe and extensive in nature covering approximately 560 square centimetres in extent. This was 10-fold greater than the 50 square centimetres of bruising considered to be moderately severe under normal circumstances by the medical literature and yet Dr Schwar insisted, when questioned during the 1971 inquest, that ‘in relation to the whole body it was not extensive’.
Dr Naidoo also explained that the ‘wounding threshold’ or the threshold to cause injury, especially on well-padded areas such as the buttocks and lower limbs, was most probably caused by repetitive blows to those areas in order to exceed the injury threshold to cause those injuries. He is therefore of the opinion that the 27 bruises found on the Imam’s body can easily be multiplied by a factor of 2, 3 or 4 if the injury threshold is taken into consideration.
Furthermore, Dr Naidoo is of the opinion that the extent of these injuries, which he described as a ‘crushing syndrome’, caused the actual muscle fibres to disintegrate and were carried by the blood stream causing them to clog up the kidneys resulting in acute kidney or renal failure. In his opinion this is a classic case of ‘crushing syndrome’ causing renal failure. However, a proper histology examination and analysis was never conducted and therefore this could not be determined by the 1969 post-mortem. Any physician, when viewing the extent of the injuries, would have conceded that these injuries were severe. Therefore, for Dr Schwar to insist under cross-examination during the 1971 inquest that they were not is very disturbing. It is clear that Dr Schwar was attempting to minimise the impact of the injuries on the well being of the Imam.
Dr Naidoo discussed the 27 injuries in detail and presented a clear perspective on their location and approximately when they occurred.
He then presented a timeline of the bruises in three categories:
- Bruises on upper body around the chest area, including a fracture not visible on the outside indicating a more advanced stage of healing and therefore one-and-a-half to two months old. In other words, these injuries were inflicted during the earlier phase of the Imam’s incarceration.
- The bruises predominantly on the hip and lower limbs, the upper calf, the rear of the right knee, inside of the thighs and back of the Achilles heel were strikingly large and should be considered very significant in extent. Almost all were on thick and dense tissue indicating that the Imam was probably lying on the floor and repetitively beaten for these injuries to be inflicted ten days before death. The timing of these injuries roughly coincides with the missing ‘two nights and three days’ that was attempted to be concealed by the investigating officers during the 1971 inquest.
- The bruises on the lower limbs, largely directed injuries to the shins, which are a few days old.
The debilitating effect would have been enormous as these bruises reflect continuous torture and coupled with over four months in solitary confinement, it would have taken its toll on Imam’s mental health.
The Imam was removed from Maitland Police Station on the morning of September 17, 1969 and only returned after 9pm on the evening of September 19.
The security police deliberately concealed this information as they did not want the Imam to be examined by a physician given his extensive injuries which were obviously very visible and apparent at that stage. Instead, a Captain Geldenhuys administered Doloxene, a very strong opium-based tablet, which was from his personal stash of medication.
The evidence suggests that this ‘missing two nights and three days’ was a dramatic turn in the Imam’s condition and that he complained no less than five times about his condition in the days immediately thereafter. This coincides with the timing of the injuries to the lower torso and lower limbs. There was most definitely a surge in injuries to the Imam’s body and consequently more complaints about the pain that he was experiencing in the days after September 19 and the days immediately prior to his death on September 27.
The timeline reflected by the injuries as described by Dr Naidoo just doesn’t fit the timeline provided by the security branch of the apartheid police.
They claim the Imam fell down the flight of stairs on September 19 and, if they did not torture the Imam, the injuries identified during the autopsy should all be around this time. However, Dr Naidoo identified the upper body injuries around the chest area to be a few months old, probably during the earlier part of the Imam’s detention.
Additionally, September 19 coincides with the last day of the ‘missing two nights and three days’ when the Imam was neither at Caledon Square Police Station nor at Maitland Police Station, and therefore could not have fallen down a flight of stairs at either location. Furthermore, the bruises that do coincide with this period are not reflective of a staircase fall but rather, as described by Dr Naidoo, of a crushing or pounding nature. It is therefore more likely that the Imam was taken to a location outside of Cape Town and severely tortured over these few days and nights.
It was against this background that the inquest proceedings culminated on the sixth and seventh days with the advocate for the Haron family, Howard Varney, questioning Brigadier Johannes Burger, the only living policeman that interacted with Imam Abdullah Haron whilst he was detained by the apartheid security police in 1969. Burger was the policeman who was responsible for the key to the padlock of the cell in which the Imam was held at the time.
Burger related how, whilst on his shift, he and the Imam shared pleasantries about their respective families and sport, particularly rugby and that he spoke to the Imam on September 26, 1969, the day before he died.
He testified how he observed that the demeanour of the Imam was lethargic to the extent that he enquired whether the Imam wanted to see a doctor. To this the Imam replied that he was tired and would like to return to his cell.
The following day the Imam was discovered lying on the floor in a foetal-like position; a posture reflecting the despair and desperation that the Imam was in before he died. According to Burger he did not observe any of the injuries on the Imam’s body, except that the Imam was rubbing an area on the left side of his chest.
Burger further testified that it was only 51 years later, in 2020, when he was shown the autopsy report that he realised the truth and conceded that ‘Hierdie man was gemartel!’ (‘This man was tortured’).
Despite him at one stage becoming quite emotional, seemingly shedding a tear and apologising to the Haron family, he quickly recovered his composure and almost immediately continued his testimony in an extremely arrogant and evasive manner.
Varney put it to Burger that, given the evidence before the court, it was obvious that the Imam was continuously tortured throughout his incarceration and his physical resistance progressively weakened until he died. It was thus very strange that Burger was not aware of what was happening to the Imam over several months whilst in custody.
Varney made the compelling argument that if the police, including Burger, neglected to provide the Imam with medical attention it amounted to probable homicide. However, if they deliberately and consciously prevented the Imam from obtaining medical attention it amounted to murder.
Varney made the compelling argument that if the police, including Burger, neglected to provide the Imam with medical attention it amounted to probable homicide. However, if they deliberately and consciously prevented the Imam from obtaining medical attention it amounted to murder. In response, Burger complained to the judge he felt Varney was threatening him. When he didn’t get any favourable response from Judge Thulare, he arrogantly replied to Varney, ‘dis jou volle reg om so ‘n stelling te maak, maar ek bly by my verklaring’ (‘It’s your full right to make such a statement, but I’m sticking to my testimony’).
In my view, the evidence currently at the disposal of the court points in the direction of murder as apposed to probable homicide for the following reasons, bearing in mind, that the security police and uniformed police would have had to act deliberately and consciously to prevent the Imam from obtaining medical attention during those last few days before his death when he complained several times about his medical condition:
- Imam Haron complained no less than five times over several days about various pains he was experiencing.
- The Imam was not referred to a physician. Instead, a Captain Geldenhuys provided the Imam with Doloxene, a very strong opium-based tablet from his personal medication, indicating that Geldenhuys was aware of the severe pain the Imam was in. It also indicates that the security police did not want the Imam to be examined by a physician in order to conceal the extent of his injuries. At that stage the injuries would have been apparent to any physician.
- Geldenhuys argued that it was a weekend and therefore a physician was not available. However, according to Dr Naidoo, this was not true as a physician would most definitely have been on call.
- Over the months the Imam was incarcerated he was allowed a clean set of clothes on a weekly basis. However, during the week before his death, his family was not allowed to provide him with clean clothing, again suggesting that the security police were deliberately hiding the condition of his clothes, and thus the physical condition of the Imam, from his family.
- The Imam did not fall down a flight of stairs at Caledon Square. It is clear that this was a fabricated narrative to cover-up the fact that the Imam was continuously tortured over several months, and more severely during the ‘two nights and three days’ that was unaccounted for. And they attempted to conceal this during the 1971 inquest.
- The security police deliberately tried to conceal the fact that the Imam was neither at Caledon Square Police Station nor at Maitland Police Station from the morning of September 17 and only returned after 9pm on the evening of September 19, 1969.
- It was initially suggested that the Imam fell down the stairs at the Maitland Police Station but when this was rejected as not being possible the narrative of the Imam falling down a flight of stairs at Caledon Square Police Station was fabricated. This again suggests that the security police concealed the actual reason for the Imam’s death.
- The timing of the fall from the stairs at Caledon Square Police Station was supposedly on the September 19, 1969 but the records show that the Imam was neither at Caledon Square nor at Maitland Police Station, so how could he have fallen there when he wasn’t there?
- Dr Schwar clearly tried to minimise the injuries of the Imam, despite the physical evidence reflecting the opposite. According to Dr Naidoo this reflects his ‘dual loyalty’ to his profession as a medical practitioner and to the security branch police, who in this case were effectively his employers.
- Several shortcomings in the autopsy report were identified by both Dr Naidoo and Dr Molefe, again suggesting that the autopsy report was ‘made to fit’ the fabricated narrative of a fall down a flight of stairs presented to the court during the 1971 inquest.
- The evidence of several witnesses who were incarcerated before and after the Imam, including Jeremy Cronin, Yousuf Gabru, Robert Wilcox, Diane Sandler and Shirley Gunn, all reflect the brutal and inhumane modus operandi of the security police in general, and JP ‘Spyker’ van Wyk and his brother, Andries van Wyk, in particular.
In light of the above, it is my opinion that Judge Tulare has no alternative but to conclude that the Imam was systemically tortured over several months, culminating in the period September 17 to 19, which the security police deliberately tried to conceal, resulting in extensive injuries that eventually caused the Imam’s death on September 27, 1969.
Based on the distinction made by Advocate Howard Varney, between probable homicide and murder, this in my opinion is clearly murder!
An abridged version of this article was first published in the December 16, 2022 print edition of Muslim Views.