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Date: Tue, 11 Nov 1997 10:23:11 -0500
Sender: The African Global Experience <AGE-L@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU>
From: Marpessa Kupendua <nattyreb@IX.NETCOM.COM>
Subject: !*Torturer's Testimony Gives South Africa A New Lesson...

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Date: Sun, 9 Nov 1997 11:27:24 -0800 (PST)
From: Tom Burghardt <tburghardt@igc.apc.org>
To: nattyreb@ix.netcom.com
Subject: Torturer's Testimony Gives South Africa A New Lesson...

Torturer's Testimony Gives South Africa a New Lesson in the Banality of Evil

By Susanne Daley, in The New York Times,
9 November 1997

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Jeffrey Benzien was one of the many minor but effective functionaries who made apartheid work for South Africa's white government.

Every day, the paunchy, graying police officer left his home in this city's tidy suburbs and went to a police barracks where he extracted confessions with torture.

Benzien was particularly adept at the use of the "wet bag," in which a cloth placed over victims' heads brought them to the terrifying brink of asphyxiation, over and over again. Few withstood more than half an hour.

Questioned at a hearing of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission by one of his victims, Peter Jacobs, Benzien said he simply could not recall exactly what he had done to whom.

"If I say to Mr. Jacobs I put the electrodes on his nose I may be wrong," he testified. "If I say I attached them to his genitals, I may be wrong. If I say I put a probe in his rectum, I may be wrong. I could have used any one of those methods."

As the commission continues its work, the brutality of South Africa's past is being itemized, not in the grand sweep of a history book, but in the individual stories of victims and torturers, of murderers and mothers of the murdered, of high commanders who made their decisions over tea trays and foot soldiers who made theirs beside fresh bloodstains.

Benzien's story has gripped the country partly because of photographs of him demonstrating his technique during hearings, and partly because until he testified he was a nobody.

He did not have the nickname "Prime Evil" like Eugene de Kock, who commanded a whole unit of killers but has never been photographed doing anything more active than wringing his hands. The press did not call him a superspy, as it does Craig Williamson, who mailed bombs in letters and earphones to anti- apartheid activists.

Benzien, now 50, was just a middle-level officer whose only distinction may be that he came forward to talk about his job as a torturer. He is the only member of his unit to have done so. Whether the others will ever be tracked down and prosecuted remains an open question, as South Africa's justice system is already struggling just to deal with today's crime wave.

He has cried and confessed that he has no explanation for what he did -- that he wonders what kind of a person can do such things. His psychiatrist, Ria Kotze, who was called to testify on his behalf, has described a man who saw himself as a good policeman, who at the end of the day went home to his family and never discussed what he did at work. Nowadays, she said, he is full of self-loathing and suffers acutely. His memory has become patchy. He takes antidepressants.

During four days before the commission, his victims took turns attacking the veracity of his amnesty application, which contained only the barest of details. In writing, Benzien admitted only to use of the wet-bag treatment on six victims and said he had worked alone, to make it easier to deny the torture in court later, if he is not granted amnesty.

But pressed, at times relentlessly, he admitted that he had used electric shocks as well. One victim said Benzien had shoved a broomstick up his rectum. There were beatings, too, and some people were hung for hours by handcuffs attached to the window bars in their cells.

Yet if much of South Africa has focused on Benzien as the ultimate torturer, his victims say he was only one of many officers who went home to their wives and children after making prisoners howl and writhe and beg for their lives. They say he gained prominence only because some of his victims are now prominent -- one of them, Tony Yengeni, a member of parliament.

Indeed, at his hearing it became clear that while Benzien's victims screamed, other officers helped to hold them down or moved in and out of the room indifferent to what was happening. Benzien's story, they say, offers nothing more than a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of the elite security police -- who routinely used torture and routinely denied doing so.

Through his lawyer, Benzien declined to be interviewed. But much of his life and even his feelings were laid bare by the proceedings. He remains in the police force, albeit relegated to an obscure job at the Cape Town International Airport.

Jacobs, now a police officer himself, says many officers shun Benzien. At a recent police conference, Jacobs said, he found that during a cigarette break outside a building, he alone was willing to talk to Benzien.

"It was strange," Jacobs said. "Everyone just disappeared."

The two men talked about their current assignments, and Jacobs noted that Benzien now referred to him as Superintendent, an acknowledgment of Jacobs' higher rank.

Benzien joined the force in 1977 and barely a year later was transferred to the detective branch. He soon went on to a murder- and-robbery squad, one of the units notorious for torturing ordinary criminals. In 1986, he was plucked to join the far more prestigious security branch, which investigated political activists and which, under the watchful eye of international human rights groups, tortured more carefully.

"They didn't take him because he was a brute," Jacobs said. "They took him for his suaveness."

To grant him amnesty, the panel must rule that his acts had a political motive and that he has confessed everything. Benzien says he was an enthusiastic supporter of the National Party, which ran the government, and was following explicit or implicit orders. His commanding officer also testified, acknowledging that he had known about Benzien's torture sessions and had once helped pin a prisoner down.

His job with the security branch, Benzien told the commission, was to trace a person, arrest him and quickly get him to confess where weapons were hidden before they could be moved.

In describing his work, Benzien seemed at times to take pride in his accomplishments. "I believe that due to my expeditious and unorthodox conduct," he said at one point, "we made a big difference in combating terror."

But at other times, he expressed bitterness about the role he had played in the apartheid machinery of the white government, which ruled until Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994 in the country's first nonracial election.

"I can sit here and tell you in all honesty that I was used by the then security branch," he said. "When it came down to getting the job done, I was the person who did it. Maybe I was too patriotic, too naive or anything else that you want to call it."

Early in the hearings he appealed for sympathy, saying he, too, had paid a price for apartheid.

"My house windows had to be barricaded with cupboards," he said. "Every night a wet blanket had to be put in the bath, available where my younger children could get hold of that in the case of grenade attacks. You are surely aware that I was transferred as the station commander at Stanford because not only were my nerves shot, my wife threatened divorce if I did not get out of Cape Town."

"That was after the African Youth League threatened to have demonstrations on my front lawn," he added. Then, in a reference to Mandela's African National Congress party, he said, "I did terrible things, I did terrible things to members of the ANC, but as God is my witness, believe me, I have also suffered."

His victims did not seem moved. It was Yengeni, the legislator, who insisted that Benzien demonstrate, for panel members and photographers, how the wet-bag method had worked. After all these years, Yengeni said, he wanted to see exactly what had been done to him.

Yengeni also wanted to know what kind of man could listen to the moans and cries and take people so very near to death so many times.

The policeman was in tears when he answered.

"Mr. Yengeni," he said, "not only you have asked me that question. I, I, Jeff Benzien, have asked myself that question to such an extent that I voluntarily, and it is not easy for me to say this in a full court with a lot of people who do not know me, approached psychiatrists to have myself evaluated, to find out what type of person am I."

But the pathetic officer before the commission presented a sharp contrast to the images the victims evoked as they hammered at him.

"When I was arrested," one victim asked, "do you remember saying to me that you were able to treat me like an animal or a human being?"

"I concede I may have said it," Benzien said.

"Do you remember when you used the wet bag I was undressed and my pants were pulled to my ankles?"

"I cannot remember specifically, but I can concede, yes."

"Do you remember saying that you are going to break my nose and then putting both your thumbs into my nostrils and pulling it until the blood came out of my nose?"

"I know you had a nosebleed. I thought it was the result of a smack I gave you."

Benzien said he had never been trained in torture, although officers had talked about which methods worked best. And he insisted that Jacobs had been his first victim.

Jacobs found this hard to believe.

"You appeared very effective, yet you had no experience," he said. "How come? Are you a natural talent?"

"I wouldn't know," Benzien answered wearily. "It's not a very nice talent to have."

Benzien's psychiatrist, Ms. Kotze, said she had first met him in 1994 through his wife, whom she was treating for depression. Benzien was refusing to discuss his work with his wife but was clearly agitated and "verbally aggressive" toward her.

Earlier this year he had a breakdown whose symptoms included hearing voices. He started seeing Ms. Kotze on his own then. She reported that he found it hard to describe what he had done and sometimes had to stop in the middle of sessions. He has nightmares, she said, and forgets details of events.

He is not without a sense of moral outrage. He seemed hurt as he vigorously denied a victim's claim that he brought his wet bag when he visited one of his prisoners in the hospital.

In explaining his decision to come forward, he said he was still trying to serve his country and wanted to "see if we can't build and forget about hardships."

He also apologized repeatedly to his victims.

The commission's decision on him could take months. Some of his victims are opposing amnesty, saying he did not implicate everyone who had helped him and did not volunteer all he knew.

And the reaction of Jacobs, who is now at once his victim, his interrogator and his superior?

Jacobs says he is ambivalent about the man and in a strange way feels sorry for him.

"He came out and we exposed him," Jacobs said. "What's it really going to serve now, not to give him amnesty? What strategic value would be served? I can't see it."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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