Bizos pulls no punches

2013-03-31 10:00

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Sparks fly as two friends square up at the Marikana inquiry, writes Lucas Ledwaba

They were comrades working to defend victims of human rights violations by apartheid police.

Yet this week, when they squared up against one another on different sides of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry in Rustenburg, old alliances were put aside.

George Bizos of the Legal Resources Centre represents the interests of the Constitution and some of the victims of the 34 people who were shot and killed by police at Marikana on August 16 last year.

His former comrade, Ishmael Semenya, represents the police in their quest to justify their actions, which resulted in those deaths.

And when Bizos began his cross-examination of national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega late on Tuesday afternoon, it marked the beginning of a fierce contest with his old comrade.

Semenya had a torrid time raising objections, and disputing points and statements Bizos made, as he sought to defend his client against the legendary legal eagle.

At 92, Bizos, who walks with a cane and often asks younger colleagues to repeat words he missed, is far older than all commission participants, including retired Judge Ian Farlam himself.

He has admitted his hearing is not so sharp any more, which made him ask Phiyega several times to speak up.

Phiyega at times appeared irked by Bizos’ style – like when he asked her in the manner of a nursery school teacher what the acronyms of police units stood for.

“TRT stands foooooor?” he asked, raising his voice, to suppressed giggles in

the gallery.

“Tactical reaction team,” Phiyega responded, annoyed.

Bizos’ style is, at times, like those of lawyers in American court dramas: brash, confrontational, intimidating and provocative.

He is sometimes given to firing questions in rapid succession, not waiting for witnesses to complete their answers.

He is also sometimes sarcastic about those answers.

Phiyega appeared distressed when he raised his voice and put it to her that some of the units deployed at Marikana that day “were trained to kill people”.

Yet Farlam, who can be harsh on lawyers he believes to be out of line, appears to reserve much respect for Bizos.

“Mr Bizos, please don’t raise your voice. It’s not necessary. It might be construed as having intimidatory effects on the witness,” he said.

Bizos argued that the fact that there were only 176 public-order policing-unit officers deployed in Marikana on August 16, compared with 337 from specialised units, showed the police’s aim was not crowd control, but confrontation.

The public-order policing unit is trained in crowd control, while the tactical reaction unit, special task force and the national intervention unit specialise in hostage release, counterterrorism, and foiling cash-in-transit heists and bank robberies. In other words, they’re trained “to kill people”.

Semenya objected to this, saying they were trained in law enforcement.

Phiyega stuck to her guns, refusing to answer questions about the details of the police operation, saying her commanders in charge would do it better.

She even denied ever having seen the police’s operational plan before it was carried out, saying she trusted her commanders’ expertise.

Bizos was clearly frustrated.

“You are noncommittal, aren’t you? You don’t want to commit yourself to anything. Do you agree?” he charged.

“I don’t agree,” Phiyega responded.

Bizos said he would argue that Phiyega was not prepared to say anything critical about the police or politicians and that, in her eyes, the police could do no wrong.

He said she, just like her predecessors who presided over the force during apartheid-era massacres, patted her officers on the back and praised them to the heavens.

Phiyega has told the commission the police acted in self-defence.

She responded to questions about the proportionality of force they applied by saying only that debates between experts, commanders and judges would provide the answers.

“I don’t feel comfortable giving an answer,” she said.

Bizos said he would also lead evidence by pathologists that showed that most of the dead miners’ injuries were caused by lethal shots to the upper body.

When the day was over, the old comrades, Bizos and Semenya, exchanged a brief chat and a laugh. It was just another day in the law business.

The commission continues on Tuesday.

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