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South African Policeman Found Guilty of Five Murders

By Bob Drogin
Los Angeles Times
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

A former police officer who headed apartheid's most notorious death squad - a state-sanctioned unit that carried out grisly bombings, assassinations and other atrocities - was convicted Monday of five counts of murder.

Former police Col. Eugene de Kock, a key figure in the "dirty war" waged by the white minority regime against black liberation forces, is the first senior security officer to be convicted of apartheid-related offenses since the nation's founding democratic elections in April 1994.

Magnus Malan, the apartheid-era defense minister, and 10 other former top military and intelligence officials are on trial in a separate murder case in Durban. The group is charged of masterminding a hit-squad massacre of 13 people, most women and children, nine years ago.

De Kock, known to his former colleagues as "Prime Evil," still faces verdicts on 116 other charges, including three more murders, kidnapping, assault, illegal weapons possession and dozens of counts of fraud.

Now 48, the burly, bespectacled officer headed the Vlakplaas police anti-insurgency squad - known as the C-10 unit - from a placid farm west of Pretoria for a decade until the group was ordered disbanded in 1993.

Witnesses and evidence implicated De Kock's team in a gruesome series of covert crimes, including bombing, poisoning, torturing and burning to death dozens of anti-apartheid activists here and abroad.

The 18-month trial offered a grim litany of official cover-ups, corruption and killing, allegedly by some of the most senior police officers of the time.

Several of De Kock's closest former friends and colleagues provided the most damning evidence against him, testifying in return for immunity.

"You become cold and distance yourself and ignore your conscience," testified Dougie Holtzhausen, a former Vlakplaas operative. "But your ghosts come out to haunt you in your nightmares."

De Kock's specialty was using torture, blackmail or other means to persuade captured black guerrillas from the African National Congress to work, instead, for him.

But in some cases, the killers turned on each other. Witnesses testified that De Kock and his men savagely beat a black policeman in their unit, then suffocated him with an inner tube, a practice they called "tubing."

The unit's most infamous action was sending a booby-trapped tape cassette player to Dirk Coetzee, who preceded De Kock as commander of Vlakplaas but later went public about its illegal operations. Coetzee refused to accept the mailed package but his lawyer was killed when it was delivered to him.