White extremists who set off a series of bombs, plotted to overthrow the South African government and kill Nelson Mandela were given jail terms Tuesday, ending the first major treason trial under post-apartheid laws that many hope will deter future radicals.
The sentences for up to 20 defendants between the ages of 32 and 74, ranged from five years to 35 years. Some will be released on suspended sentences, while the leaders will serve the longest terms.
Members of the Afrikaner extremist group Boeremag, or white farmer force, last year were convicted of treason for a plot, in the late 1990s and early 2000, to violently overthrow South Africa’s government. The African National Congress formed the country’s government when Mandela was elected to office in 1994 to bring an end to white minority rule.
Some members were also convicted of culpable homicide and conspiring to murder for a thwarted plan to kill Mandela. The group claimed responsibility for a series of bombings that killed a woman and caused damage throughout the Johannesburg township of Soweto in 2002.
Judge Eben Jordaan handed out the sentences in Pretoria to end the decade-long trial that has cost the country millions. Most sentences were suspended by 10 years and due to time served since around 2002, nine of the defendants will go home tomorrow, said National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Medupe Simasiku.
“For those that are going free, it’s not really freedom because they will serve their sentences at home,” he said.
Simasiku said that prosecutors are happy with the conclusion of the trial that he said will set a major precedent.
“This is our first major case with involves terrorism and treason under the new democratic dispensation,” he said, meaning the laws of post-apartheid South Africa.
“This can be used as a precedent to say this is how we can handle the issues,” he said. “This will definitely deliver a message to other criminals … Let’s hope that no one again would wish to be in the same shoes as these people.”
Georgina Alexander, a politics and government researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said that “although it has taken over a decade to come to a close it is a good thing that these men have finally been sentenced. It sends a clear message that violence against the State in South Africa will not be tolerated and these men should be sent to prison not only for what they managed to do but also for what they had planned to do.”
A leader of the group Tom Vorster and four members of its bomb squad were given some of the longest sentences. They planted a bomb on a road Mandela was going to take to visit a school in Limpopo Province, but the plot was foiled when the anti-apartheid leader changed plans and took a helicopter to the school.
Judge Jordaan said the Boeremag’s aim had been to destroy democracy in South Africa with this plot, according to South Africa Press Association. Had Mandela been killed, South Africa could have seen further unrest and bloodshed.
The members of the bomb squad were sentenced to an additional 13 years’ imprisonment on charges of culpable homicide and conspiring to murder Mandela. The sentences are to be served concurrently.
Having already served 10 years, and getting 10 years suspension, those getting the heaviest sentences will serve about 15 more years, Simasiku said.
Another leader of the group Mike du Toit, who was a former teacher at a segregated apartheid-era university, was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment, of which 10 years were conditionally suspended for five years, according to SAPA.
His wife, Ester du Toit, said that while she didn’t agree with the court’s decision, “It is closure for me in the sense that I now know which way to go forward.”
Two of the more than 20 accused died during trial and another was sentenced to 12 years in prison following a plea agreement, a local TV station reported.
The guilty include former engineers, medical doctors and military officers.
This was one of South Africa’s longest running trials and it was one of the most expensive costing the country about 36 million rand ($3.6 million), according to the non-governmental group, Legal Aid.
More than 150 witnesses were called in the trial that also saw dozens of postponements and numerous legal wrangles, including applications about the jail conditions. Two members of the bomb squad, Herman van Rooyen and Rudi Gouws, escaped while on trial in 2006 but were recaptured in 2007.
Boeremag is an extreme group of Afrikaners, the white South Africans of Dutch, French and German descent who ruled the country under the racist apartheid regime that ended in 1994. Some fringe groups support a return of racist apartheid rule in South Africa, where white-dominated governments ruled for centuries before the country’s first truly democratic elections in 1994.