South Africa's apartheid-era police minister Adriaan Vlok was handed a 10-year suspended jail sentence yesterday after pleading guilty to the attempted murder of a leading black activist 18 years ago.
In a plea bargain reached with prosecutors, Vlok, his former police chief Johann van der Merwe and three other former security officials, all admitted seeking to kill Frank Chikane, currently a senior aide to South African President Thabo Mbeki, by having his clothes laced with poison. The poison attacked his nervous system, making him violently ill.
At the time, Chikane was secretary general of the South African Council of Churches -- one of the bodies leading the fight against the apartheid system.
Vlok and van der Merwe were given 10-year prison sentences, suspended for five years. The three lower-ranking policemen were given five-year terms, suspended for four years.
State advocate Anton Ackermann stressed the case, which comes 13 years after apartheid fell, was not driven by revenge and said that was reflected by the sentence, which came after Vlok and his co-accused struck a plea bargain under which charges of conspiracy to murder were withdrawn.
"This is not a Nuremberg trial," Ackermann said referring to the 1940s trial of Nazi war criminals. "This case is not about retribution, even less has this case been motivated by revenge."
Vlok last year washed Chikane's feet in an act of contrition -- a hugely symbolic act in a country where many people count themselves as devout Christians, and where the wounds of the recent past remain raw.
Chikane was present in court when the men pleaded guilty.
Protesters outside the Pretoria High Court demanded Vlok be prosecuted for other abuses when he was in charge of police during apartheid.
"We want justice to be done to these guys ... We suffered a lot [and] people were shot and killed by police at that time," Lenni Makhiwame said before the sentences were handed down.
Makhiwame was one of several protesters holding placards reading "Apartheid is a crime against humanity."
Yesterday's trial was widely seen as a test case for the prosecution of apartheid-era officials who were not granted an amnesty by the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Vlok was the only apartheid-era minister to appear before the commission, and received an amnesty for a series of bombings but he did not ask for immunity for Chikane's poisoning.