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De Klerk Resists Calls to Reopen Death Squad Inquiry

By John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 1991



JOHANNESBURG

PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk is facing growing pressure to curb the excesses of his security forces and reestablish the rule of law in South Africa. He is also facing specific calls to reopen a probe into the operation of police death squads after earlier findings that they did not exist were discredited in a recent court ruling against a senior police officer.

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But Mr. De Klerk is resisting the pressures.

``It appears to be the one area that he is not prepared to negotiate,'' says Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, co-director of the pro-democracy Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa.

In his speech at the opening of Parliament last week - in which he announced the scrapping of apartheid laws - De Klerk failed to mention the review of security legislation. Nor did he to refer to the court finding in a libel action against Gen. Lothar Neethling, a forensics expert in the South African police.

In that case the implication of the judge's ruling was to repudiate the Harms Commission finding - which had found no evidence of the existence of the hit squads - and to expose General Neethling as having lied to the court. De Klerk had set up the commission to inquire into media allegations of police death squads. The police have appealed the ruling and refused to act against Neethling until the outcome of the appeal.

Lawyers, politicians, and human rights groups have demanded that De Klerk open a new inquiry. But he has maintained silence on the issue.

``By and large our security forces are doing an excellent job and do not deserve the vilification to which they are subjected from many quarters,'' De Klerk said last week. ``If the authority and integrity of our police are undermined, all of us will have to pay a heavy price.''

But Adriaan Vlok, the Law and Order Minister, said a rigorous program of reeducation was under way within the police force.

The attorney general of the Transvaal, Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau, said last week that several police officers who had fired on a crowd of demonstrators in Sebokeng township last March will be prosecuted.

But Mr. Vlok dashed hopes that security laws would be changed when he said last week that the law providing for arbitrary detention (Section 29 of the Internal Security Act) was ``for the future government of this country to decide upon. The only thing I can say is that there is still a danger of terrorism ... so we still need Section 29 to curb that problem.''

African National Congress Deputy President Nelson Mandela last week described the security laws as the most ``obdurate obstacle'' to negotiations.

The ANC has set April 30 as the deadline for the government to release political prisoners, grant indemnity to exiles, and review security laws. ANC officials say only about 300 out of some 3,000 prisoners have been freed, and only 1,344 exiles out of an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 have been granted indemnity.

The government says only 3,854 exiles have applied for indemnity and claims the total number of political prisoners under a definition agreed on with the ANC is between 300 and 600. Pretoria says it is honoring detailed agreements reached with the ANC. The government is also pressing the ANC to define what it means by mass action and limit its campaigns to peaceful protest.

``Mass action has to take place peacefully, responsibly and within the law,'' De Klerk said. ``Should the current trend towards the abuse of this method continue in any way, the government will be obliged to apply stronger measures to prevent the abuse.''