The South African government's decision to release one of the most notorious killers of the apartheid era from jail in a gesture of reconciliation has divided the nation.
Eugene de Kock, the head of a police death squad who was convicted of 89 crimes including torture, fraud and six counts of murder, will be set free from his cell after serving just 18 of the 212 years he was sentenced to.
Known by the moniker "Prime Evil," De Kock was infamous for torturing and killing black South African activists in the 1980s and early 1990s. He is being given parole "in the interests of nation-building and reconciliation" and because he has apologized, according to the justice minister Michael Masutha who announced his decision on Friday. Masutha would not reveal De Kock's release date.
De Kock admitted his crimes to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a landmark series of hearings chaired by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu where perpetrators of political violence got amnesty in exchange for their confessions. Since then he has been serving the part of his sentence imposed for two murders that were not politically motivated.
When he applied for parole in July, De Kock, 66, was told to assist in the search for the bodies of those who went missing under the apartheid regime. He was also told that the government would consult with the families of his victims.
Described by his sentencing judge as a chilling and revolting agent for apartheid, De Kock has recanted in recent years and sought out these families to apologise — but many South Africans question the sincerity of his remorse.
Catherine Mlangeni, the mother of one of his victims, who has made it clear that she thinks he should "rot in jail", said yesterday that she had not forgiven him for what he had done. "I will never forgive him until he tells why my son had to die like that and who decided his tragic fate," she said according to South Africa's Times newspaper.
While he has been in jail, De Kock has written to the families of those he tortured and killed, asking for their forgiveness and requesting meetings. Some have taken him up on it.
"Growing up I had a face and context for my father's murder. Eugene was in prison and served his time. My family already forgave him before the meeting," Candice Mama, the daughter of one of his victims, Glenack Mama, said. "His apology came from his soul."
Sandra Mama, his widow, said on Friday that she thought granting her husband's killer parole was right.
"I think it will actually close a chapter in our history because we've come a long way and I think his release will just once again help with the reconciliation process because there's still a lot of things that we need to do as a country," she said, adding that he was just one of the people involved in apartheid-era murders.
"He got the instructions from the top and they got away with it. They're living, you know… they're amongst us today and one man is taking the fall," she told the BBC.
Known as the Vlakplaas after its headquarters, a farm near Pretoria where the paramilitary hit squad carried out many of its executions, the group is estimated to have killed up to 1000 people. After many operations, its assassins would light two fires — one for a celebratory braai, the South African version of a barbecue, and the other to burn their latest victim to ashes.
In one of the most notorious of his crimes, De Kock tried to arrange the murder of Dirk Coetzee, his predecessor as the head of the Vlakplaas, who by 1990 had confessed to some of his activities. De Kock mailed him a Walkman rigged with explosives, supposedly from Bheki Mlangeni, an ANC lawyer with whom he had been in touch. However, a suspicious Coetzee refused to accept the parcel, and it was "returned" to Mlangeni, who pressed play and was blown up in his mother's garage.
Twenty years after the advent of democracy in South Africa, the country is still struggling to come to terms with its racist past. Inequality between the races persists: whites are paid around six times as much as blacks, a fact that President Jacob Zuma has called "bad for reconciliation." Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has called for a wealth tax on white people, something that was recommended by the TRC but never implemented.
However, Tutu welcomed De Kock's release, while calling for the government to reconsider its decision not to free another notorious South African assassin, Clive Derby-Lewis, on medical parole. The man behind the murder of Chris Hani, the South African Communist Party leader who was assassinated in 1993, is said to be in the late stages of cancer but his appeal was rejected, partly on the grounds that there was no evidence of him showing any remorse.
"We must guard against creating the impression that there is one set of rules applicable to some people, and another set of rules applicable to others," Tutu said.
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