JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Twelve of South Africa's leading opponents of apartheid were acquitted Monday of charges of high treason and subversion in a major political setback for the minority white government.
Judge John A. Milne handed down the acquittal after the prosecution dropped the charges in the midst of the defendants' trial.
The government admitted that it was unable to prove its allegation that the 12, as leaders of the United Democratic Front coalition of anti-apartheid groups, had formed a "revolutionary alliance" with the outlawed African National Congress to overthrow the regime.
Their acquittal undermines a frequent government contention that radicals are trying to establish a "revolutionary climate" in the country. And it restores much of the top leadership to the United Democratic Front after a year of police efforts to paralyze the organization with arrests, detentions and raids.
The freed leaders pledged immediately to resume their efforts to bring to an end to apartheid, South Africa's system of racial discrimination.
"It was not simply us on trial but the whole United Democratic Front," said Cassim Saloojee, 49, a social worker, who is the organization's treasurer. "This is a vindication of what we have been doing in the past two years."
Michael Imber, the Natal provincial attorney general, appeared in the provincial Supreme Court in Pietermaritzburg to withdraw the charges after a key prosecution witness--a political scientist whose testimony was intended to prove the alleged links between the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front--was discredited in cross-examination last week. The witness was forced to admit "fundamental errors," including an assertion that the defendants were committed to violence, in an analysis that he had presented.
Charges were withdrawn against Archie Gumede, 71, a Durban lawyer and former United Democratic Front president; Albertina Sisulu, 67, wife of jailed African National Congress official Walter Sisulu and also a former United Democratic Front president; Saloojee and five other Indian community leaders, and four black activists, including the Rev. Frank Chikane, leader of the front in Transvaal province, and Aubrey Mokoena, an official of the Release Mandela Committee, a major front affiliate.
4 Still on Trial
Four black trade union leaders, all officials of the South African Allied Workers Union from eastern Cape province, are still charged, and Imber said that the government will proceed with its case against them, although many of the conspiracy charges will probably now be dropped. If convicted, however, they face the death penalty.
Twenty-two other anti-apartheid activists, most of them officials of the United Democratic Front or its affiliates, are being tried for treason and murder in another case, which is still in its preliminary phase, with defense lawyers trying to show that there is no evidence to bring the charges to trial.
Together, the two cases were intended, as Gumede put it, to "paralyze, decapitate and then outlaw" the United Democratic Front by halting its anti-apartheid campaign, jailing its leaders or driving them underground and laying the foundation for the formal banning of the organization.
The United Democratic Front, founded in mid-1983, groups more than 650 organizations with a total membership of over 2 million. Although it has rivals, the multiracial front quickly established itself as the principal anti-apartheid alliance within the country, differing little from the African National Congress abroad except in its commitment to nonviolence in the fight against apartheid.
Credibility on the Line
By launching the biggest treason cases since those in the late 1950s and early 1960s in which Nelson Mandela was tried, the government put its political credibility on the line with charges that a "revolutionary alliance" was trying to make the country ungovernable through escalating violence aimed ultimately at overthrowing the regime.
The prosecution had prepared 580-page indictments against the 16 activists on trial in Pietermaritzburg and planned to call more than 120 witnesses in a trial that began in May and was expected to last at least 18 months.
"The state's case was so weak that it just had to collapse," civil rights lawyer Priscilla Jana, one of the defense attorneys, said later in Johannesburg. "We will just have to wait and see whether the state really wants to proceed with the rest of the charges, or whether it is just trying to save a bit of face."
Gumede, who says he has "been nearly 60 years in the struggle" and whose father once was president of the African National Congress, said here, "This ordeal has not discouraged me in the least from continuing toward a peaceful South Africa."
Pleads for Mandela
Speaking on behalf of the others, Gumede called on President Pieter W. Botha to grant unconditional freedom to Mandela, the imprisoned African National Congress leader serving a life sentence for sabotage.
"To work toward peaceful change, P.W. Botha has to speak to Nelson Mandela," Gumede said. "The quicker he speaks to Mandela, the better it will be for South Africa."
Returning to Johannesburg, the defendants and their lawyers were met by nearly 200 singing, chanting, dancing supporters who adorned them with garlands of flowers.
The 12 freed defendants said they will discuss bringing a lawsuit against the government for illegal detention to try to recover damages and legal costs. Some were held for as long as seven months before bail was granted.