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South African Judge Acquits Six Soldiers in Racist Massacre

By Dele Olojede
DURBAN, South Africa

A high-profile murder trial involving some of the leading lights of apartheid began to crumble Thursday when a judge pronounced six of their alleged foot soldiers not guilty and strongly indicated that former Defense Minister Magnus Malan and other army generals may be similarly acquitted when he concludes his ruling Friday.

Malan and 15 others were facing murder charges in the massacre of 13 blacks in a small township near this Indian Ocean port. Their trial was the first ever to involve the most senior officials of the former white government whose death squads, hit men and surrogates killed thousands of anti-apartheid activists and ordinary blacks in an effort to prolong white rule.

But hopes of bringing the most senior apartheid leaders to justice began to fade Thursday when Judge Jan Hugo shredded the prosecution's case at the start of a long ruling. The judge practically accused the prosecution of misconduct and sloth, saying evidence appeared to have been tampered with and witnesses coerced.

As a result, the six men who allegedly carried out the dead-of-night attack on the sleeping Ntuli family and their guests were discharged, prompting cheers in the courtroom and celebratory foot-stamping from about 20 of their supporters who waited outside, chanting "Viva!" The six and another accused, M.Z. Khumalo, were members of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement, which cooperated extensively with apartheid authorities but has denied any involvement in murder.

"This is a mighty triumph for justice," said Koos van der Merwe, one of a handful of white conservatives who have attained leadership in the Zulu movement. "The vilification (of Inkatha) must now stop. We are a party for peace."

Hugo said the prosecution failed dismally to prove its case and that its star witness was a liar and dissembler. The witness, former army Capt. Johan Opperman, has confessed to being in charge of the massacre operation. He testified for the prosecution in hopes of gaining immunity.

But the judge said that Opperman and another star witness were "self-confessed criminals who are trying to get some benefits by testifying (and) red lights must necessarily start flashing.

The unraveling case represents a setback for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established last year under the chairmanship of retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to document the political crimes committed under apartheid.

Perpetrators are supposed to offer a full confession in exchange for state pardon, but almost no senior apartheid-era leader has come forward. Many believe that the justice system is too weak and in such disarray that they could never be successfully prosecuted, and the unfolding fiasco of the Malan trial will only reinforce that view.

The six men acquitted Thursday were charged with murder, while Malan and other generals faced additional charges of conspiracy to murder for approving "Operation Marion," under which the apartheid army secretly trained a hit squad for Inkatha in order to kill supporters of the rival African National Congress. Malan admitted to the training, but said it was a legitimate force for "VIP protection" and not for murder.