JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Father Smangaliso Mkhwatsha, secretary general of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, was convicted Monday of illegal possession of a firearm, bringing to a close a case that began nearly 18 months ago and led to his detention without charge or trial for a year.
Mkhwatsha, 48, one of South Africa's most charismatic and influential black leaders, told a magistrate in Pretoria that he was storing the .38-caliber revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition for a friend who was traveling overseas and that he was unaware of a law requiring him to report to the police that he was holding the gun.
While the charge was serious, magistrate B. J. O. van Schalkwyk said that in Mkhwatsha's case, he could "hardly imagine that the accused would get involved in something such as committing armed robbery or shooting people."
Van Schalkwyk fined the priest the equivalent of $250, and the prosecution, in an apparent deal with defense lawyers, dropped other charges against Mkhwatsha and his deacon.
The gun had been found during a police raid on Mkhwatsha's church and rectory in May, 1986, and he was held for more than a year during which he has said he was tortured, apparently by military intelligence officers.
Mkhwatsha's prolonged detention brought worldwide protests, and Pope John Paul II denounced the Pretoria government for holding the activist priest so long without charge or trial.
Mkhwatsha, meanwhile, has received a passport that will permit him to travel to Rome this month with the country's Catholic bishops for a series of meetings with the pontiff and Vatican officials. He will receive the equivalent of $7,000 in an out-of-court settlement with the nominally independent tribal homeland of Ciskei, where he was detained without charge for seven months several years ago.