Apartheid-Era Minister Pleads Guilty at Poisoned Clothes Trial

An apartheid-era government minister whose name was synonymous with terror pleaded guilty to attempted murder Friday in a plot to kill a prominent church leader by lacing his clothes with poison, but may serve no time in prison in a plea deal.

In the first trial of a minister from the white racist government, former law and order Minister Adriaan Vlok and his police chief Johannes Van der Merwe were both sentenced to 10 years. However, they will not have to spend any time in prison if they commit no crimes for five years.

Three other former top security officials were given five-year suspended sentences for their role in the 1989 plot to assassinate Frank Chikane, then secretary-general of the World Council of Churches and now a top adviser to President Thabo Mbeki.

Vlok, who is now 70 and deeply religious, was composed as he appeared at Pretoria's High Court. He exchanged greetings with Chikane — whose feet he washed last year as a gesture of atonement.

"I would like to say, 'Obey the Lord and He will heal the land," said Vlok, who was minister of law and order from 1986-1989, when an estimated 30,000 people were detained.

Chikane, who nearly died in the assassination attempt, has said he has forgiven Vlok.

"I am pleased that this thing is over and we can move forward," Chikane told journalists Friday. "I hope that whatever happened today can be used as a way of resolving all the outstanding issues."

Under the plea bargains, Vlok and the four others would assist in any other prosecutions should they arise, said National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Panyaza Lesufi. That could open the way to a fuller accounting of apartheid era crimes.

Vlok's case had boosted hopes that the masterminds of apartheid era crimes would be brought to account but also reignited a national debate about whether this should include former black freedom fighters.

National Prosecutor Vusi Pikoli called the outcome of the case a "victory" for South Africa and said any future cases would seek to "heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental rights."

Torture survivors and family members of people who disappeared or were killed by apartheid security forces demonstrated outside the court room, as did relatives of those who died in bombs planted by the military wing of the African National Congress. The protests highlighted the divisions between the black majority and white minority which still run deep in modern South Africa, 13 years into multiracial democracy.

One demonstrator carried a placard with the face of former President F.W. de Klerk and the caption: "selective memory denialist, Nobel peace laureate?"

De Klerk, who became president in 1989 and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for helping usher in black majority rule, insists he knew nothing of any atrocities. He recently said if there were to be further prosecutions, former ANC guerrillas as well as members of the white security forces should be targeted.

Vlok appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to help the nation come to terms with its past. He was one of some 1,000 South Africans who were granted amnesty for confessing to various crimes during harrowing two-year hearings. But he never applied for protection from prosecution for the attempt on Chikane's life.

Although the vast majority of atrocities were committed by white security forces, ANC guerrilla forces waged land mine and bombing campaigns in which innocent civilians died. There also have been accusations of human rights abuses in camps the ANC ran for its fighters in exile.

A group of 37 ANC leaders applied for a blanket amnesty at the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. This was denied because they had to apply individually, but none have ever faced charges.