S. Africa drops treason charges against activists

Top members of South Africa's anti-apartheid United Democratic Front claim they have been vindicated by the government's decision to drop charges of high treason against them. The state prosecutors yesterday withdrew the charges against 12 of 16 UDF associates.

The dropping of the charges seemed to lend support to those who claimed the state's main purpose in the trial was political. Many saw the trial as an attempt to crush the UDF, regarded by many as the most effective, extra-parliamentary opposition movement in South Africa. Right from the start of the trial, defense lawyers said that the charges contained in a 587-page indictment were ``inconsistent, inaccurate, vague and embarrassing.''

The main charge against the 15 men and one woman who were standing trial was high treason.

But the charges also included terrorism and fulfilling the objectives of an illegal organization, the outlawed African National Congress. The ANC seeks the overthrow of the minority white government in South Africa.

Archie Gumede and Albertina Sisulu, two of the accused who have been discharged, are joint presidents of the UDF. The UDF is an umbrella group, that includes dozens of affiliated trade unions, church groups, community organizations and student associations.

From the start, the trial has provoked criticism that it was politically motivated. The Roman Catholic bishops of South Africa produced a special booklet claiming that the arrests and subsequent trial were to isolate important UDF leaders whom the government ``would ultimately be forced to release.''

It was a process of ``using the process of justice to perpetuate injustice,'' the bishops claimed, warning that the UDF is ``perhaps the only organization capable of channeling the pent-up anger of the townships into peaceful political change rather than bloody civil war.''

There were formal protests, too, from various foreign governments, including the United States, which called the arrests ``an act of confrontation.''

After the first arrests a year ago, there were repeated attempts to have the accused released on bail. This was allowed by the Supreme Court on May 4. Supporters who had raised bail, rushed to the jail where the accused were being held.

When the court hearing started in the Supreme Court in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, near Durban at the beginning of August, defense lawyers immediately demanded the indictment should be quashed. They claimed it produced no clear-cut case against the accused. At least, they said, the state should redraft the allegations to make them less vague.

The state replied that it could not make any more facts known until it called evidence. It said that the accused had ``performed acts'' calculated to further the objectives of an organization it named the Revolutionary Alliance which the state alleged aimed to create a situation in South Africa that would make the country ``ripe for revolution.''

Although it said the UDF itself was not part of the conspiracy, it said there were ``underground structures'' inside the UDF that had ``unlawful aims'' against the state.

By mid September, the state was already beginning to water down its case, and it withdrew various individual subsidiary charges against several of the accused.

During the course of the trial the state produced various academic witnesses who gave the court their interpretations of the political philosophy of various antiapartheid organizations.

Those released intend to consult lawyers about the possibility of taking legal action for damages against the South African government for wrongful arrest.

The four who still face treason charges are all members of the South African Allied Workers Union, a trade union. The case against them continues.

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