The truth behind Dr Neil Aggett’s death was “supressed in the first inquest” which was plagued by fraud as a result of the apartheid state, according to advocate Howard Varney of Webber Wentzel on behalf of his family.
Varney gave the opening address on the first day of the re-opening of the inquest into Aggett’s death, detailing the evidence he would be leading over the next few weeks.
“It will be our submission that a massive and obvious fraud was perpetrated by the State in the 1982 inquest that demands the overturning of the original finding,” he told the court.
Aggett died in detention at the infamous John Vorster Square, now Johannesburg Central police station.
He was found hanging in his cell, supposedly having committed suicide 70 days into his detention in 1982.
But, Varney said, the family was of the belief that Aggett had died at the hands of the apartheid Security Branch.
He added his team would, over the coming weeks, show the court the truth behind Aggett’s death.
“The Aggett family’s central theory of the case is that Neil was killed at the hands of SB [Security Branch] officers, either directly or through systematic torture and neglect which pushed Neil to take his own life,” Varney said.
The first inquest into Aggett’s death in 1982 was a “cover-up” by the State, he added.
“The truth of Neil’s death, as a white detainee, would have been a public relations disaster for the State both locally and internationally.”
As such, the conditions of Aggett’s detention “bore no resemblance” to the version put forward by the Security Branch in the first inquest.
Torture and abuse commonplace
Torture and abuse were commonplace during detention, Varney said, and ranged from physical assault, electric shocks and sleep deprivation, among other sophisticated techniques.
“The former Security Branch of the South African Police Service was a thoroughly corrupt organisation. Whole-scale fabrication of evidence and deception were the order of the day.
“They were masters of the cover-up,” Varney told the court.
He said evidence presented at the first inquest would now be interrogated to overturn the findings of the first inquest.
This includes medical evidence suggesting Aggett committed suicide.
“While the medical evidence points to death by hanging, it does not exclude the possibility that Dr Aggett was murdered by hanging in an unconscious, semi-conscious or low-conscious state.”
An expert forensic pathologist will be called to testify and who will confirm that “a staged hanging cannot be excluded on a scrupulous examination of the available medical evidence”.
The expert will also point to mistakes in the post-mortem process that could have resulted in evidence, which suggested Aggett had been tortured, going missing or being overlooked.
The cloth or kikoi found around Aggett’s neck was “double knotted just below his right ear”, Varney explained.
“The first inquest court found that the kikoi was given to Neil while he was in his cell and he was allowed to keep the cloth.”
But this would have amounted to a security breach on behalf of the officers, Varney said.
“Detainee witnesses will testify that they were not permitted to wear belts for fear of a detainee using a belt to cause themselves harm.
“Jill Burger [Aggett’s sister] recalls from her visit seeing him without a belt or shoelaces both of which could have been used by Neil to take his own life,” Varney told the court.
He added detainees were not allowed to keep even their towels after showering, while police officials regularly searched the cells for contraband items.
No investigation conducted
No investigation had been conducted by the Security Branch or court as to why Aggett was allowed to keep the kikoi or who gave it to him.
Other matters that will be interrogated, Varney said, was the question of access to detainees by Security Branch members, the fact that cell visits were skipped in the hour that Aggett allegedly hanged himself, and “the remarkable fact that only one solitary fingerprint was lifted from the grill from which Aggett had climbed and allegedly hanged himself”.
Those who could have intervened on Aggett’s behalf were prevented from doing so, Varney said.
“We will consider the complaints of assault and abuse made by Neil himself; the last one made on the very morning of the alleged suicide.
“We will submit that this is not the conduct of someone who had given up on life but rather the conduct of someone who was seeking redress and a reckoning of those who abused him,” Varney said.