George Bizos, an anti-apartheid icon and renowned human rights lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela on treason charges for which he escaped the death penalty decades before he became South African president, died on Wednesday aged 92.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the rights lawyer’s passing during an online media briefing.
“This is very sad for our country,” he said.
Bizos died of natural causes at his home in Johannesburg, his family said in a statement.
The celebrated lawyer represented Mandela during the Rivonia Trial, which saw Mandela and seven others sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 on charges of seeking to overthrow the apartheid government. Many had expected the death penalty.
Ramaphosa described Bizos as one of the lawyers who “contributed immensely to the attainment of our democracy.”
“He had an incisive legal mind and was one of the architects of our constitution,” he said.
Bizos arrived in South Africa as a 13-year-old war refugee from Greece and became one of its most respected lawyers.
In a long career dedicated to defending democratic values and human rights, Bizos represented a series of activists against the white minority regime and later helped to finalize the constitution of post-apartheid South Africa.
A beloved national figure, he continued working into his late 80s.
Bizos was in his mid-30s when he was chosen in 1963 to join a team of advocates that represented Mandela and seven others in one of the most important political trials in the history of South Africa.
Although a junior member of the defense team, Bizos was credited with the tactic of proposing that Mandela deliver a statement from the dock to present the group’s cause, rather than submit him to cross-examination.
The speech was electrifying, notably Mandela’s often-cited lines on his hope for democracy: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Bizos would say later that he advised Mandela to avoid challenging the court over the possibility of a death sentence by adding the tempering words “if needs be.”
In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom in 1994, Mandela described the advocate as a lifelong friend and “a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind.”
Bizos married Arethe Daflos in 1954 and they had three sons.
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