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Senior South African Police Officer Sentenced to Death

By David B. Ottaway
The Washington Post

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

A South African judge Thursday sentenced a white senior police officer to death for masterminding the 1988 massacre of 11 people mistakenly identified as anti-apartheid activists aligned with the African National Congress.

Human-rights advocates said it was the first time in the long anti-apartheid struggle that a senior policeman had been tried and sentenced to death for such extensive involvement in the political violence wracking this country since 1984.

"It's what we've been saying all along," said Max Coleman, a spokesman for the pro-ANC Human Rights Commission. "Police complicity in manipulating and orchestrating violence in the country is now apparent."

The trial revealed that the massacre was planned by members of the South African police and local leaders of Inkatha, the Zulu-led faction of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which has been engaged in a deadly struggle with ANC supporters since 1984, particularly in Natal Province where these killings took place.

The guilty verdicts for the white police officer, who commanded a rural police station in Natal Province, and four black assistants lend credence to the contention of the ANC that the political violence largely has been the result of attempts by the South African security forces in conjunction with Inkatha to weaken or destroy the ANC.

"This is the insidious `third force' we've been talking about," said Brian Currin, executive director of Lawyers for Human Rights.

He said the outcome of the trial was a rare instance in which a cover-up by the police of their involvement in the violence had failed. "There have been scores and scores of cover-ups that were successful," he said.

While the massacre took place in December 1988, Judge Andrew Wilson found there had been an extensive attempt to cover-up and derail the investigation over the past year by top-echelon police officers. Only the determined efforts of one investigating officer had allowed the truth to come to light, he said.

Wilson called for a public inquiry into the conduct of the whole police command in the case.

The trial, held in Pietermaritzburg, established that the so-called "Trust Feed Massacre" had been carried out by Capt. Brian Mitchell when he commanded a rural station at nearby Hanover. He had ordered four of his black assistants to accompany him in a nighttime attack on a mud-brick shack he thought belonged to pro-ANC activists.

The five had opened fire through the windows and door with shotguns at point-black range, killing 11 people, including two small children and six women, and injuring two others. As it turned out, the dead were not ANC supporters at all, but rather were aligned with the Inkatha faction Mitchell thought he was helping, and were simply attending an all-night funeral wake.

The court heard that Mitchell had planned the attack in complicity with local Inkatha leaders in an attempt to clean out ANC supporters, belonging to the now-defunct United Democratic Front, from the Trust Feed district.

After the massacre, the four black policemen were taken in and protected by the police force of the Kwazulu homeland that Buthelezi leads. He also is the police chief.

Wilson said he had found no extenuating circumstances warranting the imposition of a lesser sentence on Mitchell. He described the policeman's behavior after the massacre as a "completely cold-blooded approach," noting that he had not even attempted to ascertain how many people had been killed and wounded. Instead, he had set about covering up his own involvement.

The judge found him guilty on 11 counts of murder and imposed the death sentence on him for each one. The four black policemen were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Wilson said he was more lenient with them because they had acted under Mitchell's orders.

Human-rights spokesmen said they feared Mitchell might be allowed to go free soon. They cited the case reported in The Weekly Mail Thursday of Khethani Shange, a Kwazulu policeman sentenced to 27 years in prison for multiple murders last year. He was freed after serving only nine months for reasons that have yet to be explained.