CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- P.W. Botha, white-run South Africa's last hard-line president, Tuesday won his legal battle against a human rights panel that sought to take him to task for apartheid-era atrocities.
Botha succeeded in his appeal of a conviction last year for ignoring a summons to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wanted to question him about his role as head of the State Security Council. The council was found to have sanctioned the killing of anti-apartheid activists.Tuesday's decision, which was based on a technicality, comes a day before South Africa's second all-race election and could hurt race relations in a country where many blacks still see the courts as dominated by whites. The magistrate who originally found Botha guilty was black, while both judges on the appeal panel are white.
Botha, 83, had been fined $1,600 and given a one-year suspended jail sentence.
In overturning the conviction and sentence, Judge Selwyn Selikowitz ruled the subpoena was wrongly issued on technical grounds.
He said Botha was ordered to appear on Dec. 19, 1997, five days after the commission's initial mandate ended. Parliament had passed a law extending the mandate, but President Nelson Mandela had not signed it when Botha was called. Thus, Selikowitz ruled, the panel had no power to issue the subpoena.
"The court is mindful of the fact that there will be many who may consider that it is unjust" for Botha to win, Selikowitz wrote. But "this court is duty-bound to uphold and protect the constitution and administer justice to all persons alike without fear, favor or prejudice."
State prosecutor Bruce Morrison had argued that even if the subpoena was not correct, the court was morally bound to uphold the conviction.