Parole refusal

2009-03-19 00:00

HARD on the heels of the granting of early parole to Schabir Shaik on medical grounds has come the refusal by the North Gauteng High Court to accept a parole application from Clive Derby-Lewis who is serving a life sentence for the murder of Chris Hani in 1993. Do these contrasting decisions reveal little more than undiluted political bias or is the real situation not as starkly simple as that?

From a purely procedural point of view it seems that Derby-Lewis made an error of judgment in bypassing the Department of Correctional Services and making a parole application to the courts. The Minister of Correctional Services, Ncgonde Balfour, has been quick to condemn this short-circuiting of the normal process and the court itself has pronounced that it does not have the authority to place an applicant on parole. Derby-Lewis chose the judicial route on the grounds, apparently, that he had no chance of success with the departmental one because of the minister's prejudice against him.

The fact of the matter is that a great deal of emotion still relates to this case. The assassination of Chris Hani, an icon of the liberation struggle, was not only a personal tragedy for the Hani family but also a critically precarious moment for the negotiation process towards a new democratic South Africa. Such was the widespread anger precipitated by this murder that the peaceful future of this country hung for a while in the balance. Thanks to the statesmanship of Nelson Mandela and others at the time, this crisis passed but the strong emotional memory is still present and this has inevitably been taken into account in relation to Derby-Lewis's parole application after serving 15 years of his sentence. It was not easy in a case such as this simply to apply the cold precision of the law, even if the application was valid.

Parole, in other words, is not automatic in spite of a school of thought which says that it should be equally available to all prisoners, provided that the technical requirements for it are fulfilled. In Britain in the 20th century there was the classic case of Myra Hindley, grim murderer of children on the Yorkshire moors, who eventually qualified for parole but had it refused because such a step would outrage public sentiment. It will always be a challenge to find the right balance in such circumstances between the power of human emotion and the strict application of the law.

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