Nicholas Deetlefs must pay for his crimes

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SOUTH AFRICA - JOHANNESBURG - AGGETT INQUEST . One of the security police branch officers who tortured political detainees at the notorious John Voster Square police station Nick Deetlefs has taken the stand at the inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency(ANA)

The testimony of former Security Branch policeman Nicholas Deetlefs this week at the Aggett Inquest may have finally given prosecutors enough evidence to prosecute and jail one of John Vorster Squares’ (JVS) most notorious interrogators. 

Deetlefts started his career in 1979 on the 10th floor of JVS and remained there as an “experienced” interrogator of political detainees until 1994. This week his many victims both in South Africa and abroad finally got to see him questioned on the stand in the Johannesburg High Court, while Advocate Howard Varney, acting on behalf of the Aggett family, largely discredited Deetlef’s testimony, which at times bordered on the absurd. 

Deetlefs would have us believe that the 10th floor of JVS had such a “nice atmosphere” that “detainees preferred to sleep there rather than in their cells.” For the victims of the apartheid regime, the 10th floor of  JVS was widely known to be a place of terror, where victims were subjected to electric shocks, sleep deprivation, stress positions, beatings, and far worse. 

The type of horror that the security branch investigators exacted on detainees were not only gross violations of human rights, but crimes against humanity. It is ironic that as former President FW de Klerk continues to deny that apartheid was a crime against humanity, his footsoldiers in the Security Branch continue to cover up their myriad of crimes and claim that they treated detainees humanely. 

But the longer Deetlefs was on the stand the more he contradicted himself. At first he said that torture never happened at JVS, then he later said that he had heard people on the 10th floor reacting as a result of pain – that he heard them making a noise (of course he could not bring himself to articulate that they were screaming in pain). He then admitted this could have been due to assault. 

Then Deetlefs later came around to admitting that he had heard that “electric shocks were done at different times to different detainees by different security officers.” He finally said that electric shocks “were of course done” and that “it was a general thing.” Deetlefs testified that torture was talked about by security policemen in the passages, and it came up alot. But of course the man who spent his career on the 10th floor “did not know who did it.” 

Deetlefs never asked for Amnesty for his crimes at the TRC, and he told the court this week that the reason was because he “didn’t know about the TRC or how to approach it.” So the man who is now open to prosecution by the NPA because he never told the truth about the crimes he committed, would have us believe that he “never used violence against detainees” as it was “against his principles.” That claim quickly unravelled as he then admitted that he had used assault “previously,” and when pressed on which detainees he had assaulted, he would only give the name of Barbara Hogan.

Deetlefs was well aware that Hogan had already testified in the Inquest that he had assaulted her. According to Hogan, when she was interrogated by Deetlefs and Lawrence Prince, Deetlefs had also assaulted her, which Deetlefs claims was only a slap across the face, but by the time she was taken to her cell she had internal bleeding. When she was taken to see the District Surgeon, Hogan said that Deetlefs warned her not to report the assault, but should say that she bruises easily. But Hogan told the truth and Dr Norman Jacobson had phoned Brigadier Miller, the Commanding Officer of JVS, and said they must stop assaulting her. 

But Hogan is one of many who suffered greatly at the hands of Deetlefs, and now it is for the others to come forward with their testimonies, if not in the Aggett Inquest, then in a subsequent trial, now that the Aggett family is intent on having him prosecuted. The basis for this prosecution is likely to be that Deetlefs will be considered an accessory to Neil Aggett’s murder, as he allowed a person to be harmed and did nothing about it. 

Varney put it to Deetlefs in court this week that he collaborated with senior officers to cover up crimes, as covering up was routine practice in JVS. When Varney put it to Deetlefs that evidence of the Security Branch in relation to crimes against detainees must be treated with caution as cover ups were the order of the day, Deetlefs answered “correct.” 

It is no wonder that at the start of Deetlefs second day of testimony when he was asked if he had had a good night sleep he had answered “I did not, my Lord.” There will be very little sleep to be had by those who thought they could get away scott free with their crimes against humanity, as the might of the law will be brought against them. It is true that justice comes too late for the apartheid victims, but better late than never.


Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.