Apartheid-era 'fell down the stairs' death of Imam Haron challenged in reopened inquest

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Imam Haron's children – Professor Fatima Haron-Masoet, Muhammed Haron and Shamila Shamis – at the Imam Abdullah Haron death inquest at the Western Cape High Court.
Imam Haron's children – Professor Fatima Haron-Masoet, Muhammed Haron and Shamila Shamis – at the Imam Abdullah Haron death inquest at the Western Cape High Court.
PHOTO: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images
  • Fifty-three years after his death in detention, the family of the late anti-apartheid cleric Imam Abdullah Haron hopes to finally get the truth.
  • The Western Cape High Court reopened the inquest into his death after Haron's family disputed the official version that he fell down a flight of stairs while in police custody. 
  • Tuesday is likely to be a tough day with visits to the police cells where Haron was kept. 

The first day of the reopened inquest into the death of anti-apartheid cleric Imam Abdullah Haron, in police custody in Cape Town in 1969, revealed the almost insurmountable odds faced when disputing a suspicious death in custody 53 years later. 

But for the Haron family, it might finally give them proper answers, and get the "fell down the stairs" finding from 1970 overturned.

Haron's three children, Shamela Shamis, Muhammed Haron, and Professor Fatiema Haron Masoet, were all in court on Monday, with relatives and friends and representatives of the Muslim clergy there to support them.

Their mom Galiema died in 2019 without receiving justice for her husband, who regarded apartheid as "barbaric, inhumane, and un-Islamic" and was not afraid to say so in his sermons and speeches, much to the fury of the apartheid authorities.

But, according to Masoet, their mother gave her blessing for the family to continue in their quest for truth. 

READ | Western Cape judge appointed to oversee inquest into death of anti-apartheid activist Abdullah Haron

"Sadly, my mother's no longer here to witness, but she gave her blessing for this court hearing inquest to go ahead," she told News24. "It's not just about us as a family. It's about us as a nation."

Masoet said: 

For us, as a family, it will never bring complete closure, but it will bring some kind of satisfaction if the judge overturns the 1970 inquest.

"We just want that to happen. We want actual facts."

Joining them in the public gallery on day one was Nkosinathi Biko, whose own life story has also been dominated by the death in detention of his father, Steve Biko.

"It is always tough. Irrespective of what happens, you will not [raise] the dead," he told News24. 

"But it is also a beautiful moment. This family has fought for 53 years to get to this point and it is sad that cases that are really about the violation of our collective humanity have to be led by families to get to this point," he said. 

Nkosinathi Biko seated with Imam Haron's children in court
Steve Biko's son, Nkosinathi Biko, and the children of Imam Haron in court.

Biko added that if there was eagerness by the democratic government to deal with the unfinished business of apartheid atrocities, it would not have taken so long.  

On Monday, Western Cape High Court Judge Daniel Thulare reopened the inquest into Haron's death in detention on 27 September 1969. 

Haron was being held under the Terrorism Act and was interrogated by members of the notorious Security Branch, who answered to nobody, and corroborated each other's version of events when things went wrong. 

The reopening came after the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola, and the Western Cape High Court Judge President John Hlophe gave it the go-ahead.

It involves the enormous task of trying to piece together official records, tracking down the Security Branch officers who interrogated Haron, the postmortem report, and a pointing out by the only surviving policeman associated with Haron's incarceration and death, Johannes Hendrik Hanekom Burger. 

Cover-up by officials

He is understood to have been a constable on cell guard duty at the time, and he is expected to testify in the inquest. 

According to the first inquest held between February and March 1970, a fall down the stairs at Caledon Square, now known as Cape Town Central Police Station, on 18 September 1969, left Haron with blood clots and, ultimately, this is what led to him being found dead in his cell in Maitland police station at the age of 45. 

He was arrested on 28 May 1969, and by 27 September 1969, he was dead with 27 bruises on his body and a broken rib. 

The Haron family is represented by Webber-Wentzel advocate Howard Varney, and the NPA prosecutor leading evidence is advocate Lifa Matyobeni.  

During the first day of the reopened inquest, Varney said that all key officials helped cover up the actual cause of the cleric's death, from senior Security Branch officers, to district surgeons and the prosecutor in the first inquest. 

"They all played their part. They did what was expected of them," Varney told Thulare. 

Judge Thulare presiding over the inquest
Judge Thulare at the Imam Abdullah Haron death inquest at the Western Cape High Court.

The first witness was Colonel Deon Peterson, who is the commander of the Western Cape police's cold cases unit, which focuses on unsolved cases and Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) cases. 

Haron's case was allocated to him by former top cop, Major General Jeremy Vearey, before Vearey was fired as deputy commissioner for detective services over his Facebook posts. Vearey carries his own legacy as a freedom fighter who was imprisoned on Robben Island.

Peterson testified that, starting with three files handed over by two now-retired predecessors, he quickly hit a wall. 

He discovered that the original inquest documents, the pocketbooks of the Security Branch officials who were with Haron, the police occurrence books, and even the personnel records of the policemen who were with Haron, were not available.

The Department of Public Works also did not help when he asked for the architectural drawings of the Cape Town Central and the Maitland police stations, and the SA Police Service's legal services also declined to participate in the inquest.

Peterson said that he eventually managed to piece together a lot of the missing information, and obtained an SA National Archive electronic version of the inquest, which he had to have transcribed. 

Nkosinathi Biko and Imam Haron's children in court
Steve Biko's son, Nkosinathi Biko, and the children of Imam Haron seated together in court during the inquest.

What he found was that Haron was initially detained at Caledon Square before being moved to the Maitland police station on 11 August 1969. Haron was continuously interrogated at Caledon Square until he was found dead in his cell at Maitland police station. 

He had complained of chest pains and headaches, and a Dr Viviers attended to him on 7 July 1969, while Dr Charles D'Arcy Gosling attended to him on 10 July, 14 September and 15 September 1969. A member of the Security Branch was always present when he went to the doctor. 

Haron was also interviewed several times by the then-chief magistrate AJ Barnard, and also by a magistrate Greunen on their visits to check detainees' prison conditions, but according to all available records, Haron was supposedly in good health.

"Despite the complaints of his medical condition, he was continuously interrogated," Peterson found. 

It was reported that on 19 September 1969, Haron "slipped on a stairway" at Caledon Square after one of his interrogation sessions.

According to two policemen, Major Dirk Kotze Genis and Sergeant Johannes Petrus van Wyk, otherwise known as "Spyker", Haron was not injured and did not need medical treatment. It was not even written up in any reports. The stairway spill version only appeared after the postmortem.

A postmortem conducted by Dr TG Schwar found the cause of death to be coronary arteriosclerosis, pulmonary emboli, and subpleural petechial bleeding. 

A new pathologist has read this report, and is also expected to testify.

The inquest concluded that the probable cause of death was myocardial ischemia, likely caused by a disturbance to blood clotting and circulation.

Peterson told the court that instead of cordoning off Haron's cell and collecting evidence, Haron's body was hastily taken to the mortuary. 

Peterson also obtained the personnel files of the police officers associated with Haron before he died and found that Spyker, in particular, had at least four assault complaints against him that were never prosecuted, and he was disciplined for being drunk while on standby. 

However, Spyker was also commended for his work in questioning detainees.

After a tough first day, the inquest will move to the Cape Town Central police station on Tuesday for a site visit.

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