JOHANNESBURG — SOUTH AFRICA could be headed for another showdown with international critics of its judicial system. That's because of sentences just handed down in the case of 25 black men and women. Known as the Uppington 25, they had been found guilty of murder for associating themselves in 1985 with a mob that clubbed a policeman to death and set his body ablaze.
In a set of rulings that ended last Friday, a judge sentenced 14 of the defendants to hang, despite the fact that most didn't participate in the actual killing. Instead, they were convicted of having ``common purpose'' with the murderers - a concept human rights lawyers term ``shocking.''
The Uppington decision is similar to another that set off a world-wide cry for clemency last year. The ``Sharpeville 6'' - five men and one woman - were condemned to die under the same ``common purpose'' doctrine for the murder of a township councillor. Seemingly determined to impose capital punishment, Pretoria ultimately bowed to extreme pressure from the United States and Britain - among others - and commuted those death sentences.
The Uppington case is sure to provoke ``a massive outcry abroad,'' says Brian Currin, national director of Lawyers for Human Rights. ``This looks like a very upsetting trend.''
The 23-month-old trial in Uppington - a tiny, hard-scrabble town, in northern Cape Province - is based on events of Nov. 13, 1985. On that day about 3,000 people gathered at a soccer field in Paballelo, Uppington's black township, ostensibly to discuss the problem of high rents. The police moved in, gave them 10 minutes to disperse, then fired tear-gas.
(The township had been tense for a while; other black areas in South Africa had been blowing up since the previous year.)
To escape the gas, part of the crowd streamed past the home of Lucas Sethwala, the policeman. When some of them stopped to stone the house, Mr. Sethwala fired at them, wounding a small child. He then tried to escape, but was caught by a member of the group and hit over the head with his rifle. His body was assaulted and set afire.
The court ruled that only four of the Uppington 25 actually perpetrated Sethwala's murder. By throwing stones, however, the others got him out of his home with the intent to kill him. Thus, the ``common purpose'' with those who did the killing.
In an attempt to lessen the sentences, the defense lawyers then argued that after years of extreme socio-economic deprivation, it was just going to take a small spark to set their clients off. The accused were reacting to the shock of having their meeting broken up and of being tear-gased. As a result, a kind of ``de-individuation'' took over, which rendered them unable to make rational decisions, their attorneys contended.
But the presiding judge, Jan Basson, rejected most of these arguments. The events of Nov. 13 were politically motivated, a ``semi-organized'' revolt, he said, in which symbols of authority were the targets. Judge Basson rejected the ``de-individuation'' thesis, because the defendants refused to testify. Any attempt to explain their state of mind, he said, was pure speculation.
Thus, Mr. Basson couldn't find extenuating circumstances for 14 of the defendants. (Under South African law, the death penalty is mandatory for a murder conviction unless extenuating circumstances can be proven.) The judge gave six of the remaining defendants suspended sentences; the rest received jail terms of six to eight years.
Andrea Durbach, a member of the defense team, says she is ``utterly devastated by the imposition of so many death sentences.'' She and her colleagues will request the right to appeal which, if granted, could take another two years.