South Africa grants parole to apartheid death squad leader

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The South African government Friday granted parole to Eugene de Kock, the head of an apartheid state covert unit responsible for dozens of deaths, saying his freedom is in the interest of national reconciliation.

But those who knew de Kock’s victims are struggling to accept the release of the man known as “Prime Evil.”

“It’s mixed feelings, which is something we’ve gotten used to as South Africans,” said Eddie Makue, of his ambivalence. Makue worked for the South African Council of Churches when de Kock bombed its headquarters in 1988 injuring 19 people.

Makue, now a member of South Africa’s parliament, said he accepted Justice Minister Michael Masutha’s reasons for granting de Kock parole but struggled to accept the harm de Kock and his unit had inflicted on their prisoners.

“We have seen what devastation it has caused to them and we find it difficult to understand that he got off,” he said. Makue, who helped some of the young activists targeted by de Kock, believes that the former police colonel “has not told the whole truth, yet.”

De Kock, now 66, was arrested in 1994, when apartheid ended, and in 1996 was sentenced to two life terms and an additional 212 years in prison.

In his testimony to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended amnesty to those who admitted to wrongdoing during apartheid, de Kock told how he and the C10 police unit tortured and killed anti-apartheid activists at Vlakplaas, a farm outside Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.

Reportedly nicknamed “Prime Evil” by his own officers, de Kock matter-of-factly described the group’s torture methods, in some cases acting in groups of two, torturing their naked victims for hours, in a nightmarish relay that included beatings and strangling. He was pardoned for some crimes, such as the bombing of the church headquarters, but was convicted for six murders and 83 other crimes.

De Kock took over the secret unit in 1983 after four years of what he described as “gruesome” anti-insurgency campaigns in Namibia. He joined the security force after he was reportedly rejected by the police force because he stuttered.

When the unit’s activities came to light, stories that officers barbecued while they burned their victim’s bodies nearby, shocked a country already traumatized by apartheid. Sometimes, de Kock and his men packed the bodies of his victims on a pile of explosives and blew them up.

In each of the cases before the commission, about 100, de Kock carefully specified the superior who gave him orders, and in some cases named former presidents P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk.

“How could he not be informed? Instructions always came from above and he knew,” de Kock said of de Klerk, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela for ending apartheid in South Africa.

De Kock says he is the only member of the former police force sentenced to prison for crimes committed on behalf of South Africa’s old order.

The last time most South Africans saw de Kock in the 1990s before he was incarcerated at Pretoria prison, large bags hung from his eyes, behind thick glasses.

“In the interest of nation building and reconciliation, I have decided to place Mr. de Kock on parole,” said Masutha, who said the time and place of de Kock’s release would not be made public.

During his time in prison, de Kock made contact with some of his victims’ families, asking for forgiveness. Masutha said de Kock had assisted authorities in tracing the remains of activists who went missing during apartheid.

In the same announcement Masutha refused medical parole to Clive Derby-Lewis, the man who planned the assassination of anti-apartheid activist and leader of the South African Communist Party, Chris Hani. Derby-Lewis, who has cancer, was sentenced to life in prison, along with Polish immigrant Janusz Walus, for the 1993 shooting. Masutha said Derby-Lewis has not shown remorse.