PRETORIA September 9 1998 - SAPA

JOHANN COETZEE DENIES INVOLVEMENT IN MURDER OF RUTH FIRST

Former police commissioner General Johann Coetzee told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Pretoria on Wednesday he never agreed to any political assassinations, including that of Ruth First.

"I never acquiesced to the assassination of any individuals," Coetzee told the TRC's amnesty committee. Coetzee is applying for amnesty for the bombing of the ANC's London offices in March 1982, but was questioned at length about a range of attacks and assassinations when he was police commissioner between 1978 and 1985.

Coetzee told the committee he would never had never have authorised the murder in 1982 of Ruth First, the wife of former SA Communist Party leader Joe Slovo, or of Jeanette and Katryn Schoon in 1984.

He was subjected to extended cross-examination by George Bizos, SC, who is appearing for the Slovo and Schoon families. Former apartheid spy Craig Williamson has applied for amnesty for the murder of First in Mozambique and the Schoons in Angola by means of parcel bombs.

Coetzee insisted in the face of persistent questioning by Bizos that he knew nothing about the planned murders, and claimed he only found out about police involvement 10 to 15 years later.

"If I had known about any plans to have her killed, I would never have acquiesced to the idea... for personal reasons," Coetzee told the committee, but never explained what he meant.

It emerged later that Coetzee, whose interest as a security policman had been to monitor student politics, knew Williamson, First, Marius and Jeanette Schoon (whose maiden name was Curtis) while they were students at Wits University in the early 1970s.

Bizos explained that Williamson, while working a spy, had served on the Wits Students' Representative Council as vice-president while Charles Nupen was president. Williamson even offered to be Nupen's best man.

Coetzee said it was not unusual for an undercover policemen to go to such lengths to gain the confidence of the people from whom he wanted to gather information.

Coetzee admitted that he had been Williamson's desk officer and had received information from the spy.

Bizos also put it to Coetzee that Williamson had befriended the Schoons and had stayed with them in their home in Botswana after they left South African in the late 1970s. Marius Schoon's wife, Jeanette, and his daughter Katryn, 6, were killed in a parcel bomb attack in Angola 1984.

Coetzee said he had not know of these plans but agreed with Bizos that the attack was reprehensible.

As for the plan to kill First, he believed the attack had been a mistake, because he believed it should never have happened.

He said he had known her as an academic and of her lifelong involvement in leftist and communist politics, but did not believe she should be killed.

"I knew her well and would not have authorised her murder," Coetzee said.

Coetzee said he also did not approve of attempts on the life of Slovo, whose death he said would been counter-productive to the South African government's interests.

He said he only became aware 10 years after his retirement that his own agents had been involved in First's murder.

When asked by Bizos whether he had confronted Williamson after finding out, he replied that he had made his displeasure known to the former spy, but said it had been too late to do anything about it because they had both left the police.

He said if he had known at the time of any policemen who had been involved in the murder he would have taken action against them.

During the protracted cross-examination of the former police chief there were often heated exchanges between Bizos and Louis Visser, SC, who is representing Coetzee. Visser on numerous occasions objected to Bizos's questions about matters for which Coetzee was not applying for amnesty.

Bizos said he was attempting to show that Coetzee was not being truthful in his denial of involvement in numerous political murders at the time. In most instances committee chairman Judge Andrew Wilson agreed with Bizos and allowed him to continue.

At one stage Bizos accused Coetzee of evading the question about who was present at a State Security Council meeting at which the decision was taken to carry out an air strike in Mozambique in 1982.

Coetzee admitted being an adviser to the SSC on the decision to attack an ANC base in Mozambique. Bizos had repeatedly asked Coetzee to name the people who were present at the meeting and Coetzee replied he could not remember. At that stage, committee member Chris Jacobs, SC, asked Bizos whether he was being fair in asking Coetzee about a meeting so long ago.

"Mr Bizos, can you tell me who sat next to you at a Bar Council meeting that happened 18 years ago?" Jacobs asked.

"I would have if I had been part of a recommendation to order the murder of 14 people," Bizos replied, referring to an SAAF strike in Mozambique in 1982 in which 14 people were killed.

Coetzee told the committee he did not feel legally responsible for the victims of the attack because it had been an operation conducted during a state of war.

Throughout the questioning, which also covered many aspects of Coetzee's terms as head of security police and later police commissioner, the murder of scores ANC and anti-apartheid activists including Steve Biko, the Cradock Four, Sizwe Kondile and Griffiths Mxenge, were raised.

On many occasions Coetzee said he could not recall the exact sequence of events and particular details, but denied ordering the deaths of activists.

Bizos will question Coetzee further when the hearing continues on Thursday.


South African Press Association, 1998
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