21 January 2020

Dr. Aggett Inquest Re-opened

The inquest into the death and circumstances of Dr. Neil Aggett has been re-opened and commenced on 20 January, 2020. The re-opened inquest is scheduled over the course of 6 weeks until the end of February and will be held at the Johannesburg High Court before Judge Makume. This comes 27 months after the inquest into the death of Ahmed Essop Timol was re-opened and the High Court found that his death was by way of murder, not by way of suicide as was previously determined in the original inquest. Dr. Neil Aggett was a medical doctor and trade union organiser who died whilst in police custody after he was arrested by the Security Branch (SB) of the South African Police (SAP). Aggett was arrested on 27 November 1981, detained for 70 days, during which time he was subjected to torturous interrogations frequently lasting over 18 hours at a time. He was also subjected to actual torture including electric shocking, strenuous exercising, assault and beatings, and water boarding. On 5 February, 1982 Dr. Aggett was found dead in his cell, hanging from the bars.

He was held at John Vorster Square, Johannesburg (now Johannesburg Central Police Station) where a team of policemen led by Lieutenant Stephan Whitehead and Major Arthur Cronwright tortured him and numerous other detainees. Dr. Aggett made reports, on 4 February 1982 – the day before he was found hanging in his cell, to a Magistrate as well as a SAP uniformed investigator of his, and other detainees’, alleged assault and torture. Unwittingly, the uniformed investigator let leak to Whitehead and Cronwright that the Aggett had made the report and accompanying affidavit.

The original inquest into the circumstances surrounding Dr. Aggett’s death began December, 1982 wherein the presiding Magistrate found that Aggett’s death was a suicide and that no one was to blame for his death. The Aggett family believes that if indeed their son’s death was by way of suicide, that he was driven to take his own life. At the inquest, evidence was led by members of the SB that they were tasked with the wellbeing of inmates, more specifically Whitehead and Cronwright admitted to having been tasked with the wellbeing of Aggett and other detainees. In the course of their admissions, they submitted that there was no such alleged torture, assault, or ill treatment of detainees despite overwhelming evidence led by other detainees of their personal experiences, and observations of torture against Aggett and other detainees. Despite all of this, the Magistrate handed down his determination that no one was to blame for Aggett’s death but himself.

In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was faced again with Aggett’s case. The TRC found that there was an overwhelming body of evidence that the actions of Whitehead, Cronwright, and others had induced Aggett’s suicide. Whitehead did not make any representations, nor did he seek amnesty for his actions. At that time, Cronwright was deceased. Subsequent investigations found that members of the SB had falsified evidence and mislead the original inquest. After much lobbying by families and public figures, an inquest re-opening was granted in September 2018. Unfortunately, Whitehead passed away in April 2019 meaning that the two primary “suspects” in Aggett’s death had now both passed away before the re-opening and never having been brought to justice for their crimes and gross human rights violations.

You can follow the re-opening hearing over the next 6 weeks and you can view press clippings, photographs, and the report from the original inquest by following this SAHA link.

Photo of Dr. Neil Aggett (SAHA Collection)