DURBAN, South Africa — The mass murder and conspiracy case against former Defense Minister Magnus Malan and other top military chiefs of the apartheid regime appeared close to collapse Thursday after a judge acquitted six key defendants and branded the main prosecution witnesses as liars.
Full acquittals now seem likely when final verdicts are delivered today in the most significant political trial of the post-apartheid era. Malan is the highest official from the former government to have been accused of apartheid-related crimes.
In a partial reading of his verdict, Judge Jan Hugo repeatedly rejected or ridiculed prosecutors' arguments and witnesses' testimony aimed at linking Malan and his former colleagues to the 1987 death squad massacre of 13 unarmed blacks, mostly women and children, in KwaMakuthu township south of Durban.
Hugo said he and two assistant judges found "no evidence" in the nonjury trial that the military had sanctioned the grisly predawn slaughter.
"This was not an officially planned or authorized military exercise," he said.
He also dismissed prosecution claims that the clandestine paramilitary training of pro-government Zulus in 1986 was illegal.
"I can see nothing wrong with the proposition that the defense force should train citizens in self-defense for use in private organizations," the judge said.
Anti-apartheid leaders and an independent judicial commission have blamed these trainees for stoking township violence that roiled South Africa until the all-race elections of 1994.
In a crucial setback for the prosecution, Hugo acquitted the first six defendants of all charges of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy. Eyewitness testimony and evidence had appeared strongest against the group, whose members were specifically accused of carrying out the KwaMakuthu massacre.
Prosecutors had asserted that the six men, all supporters of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, were covertly trained, armed and directed by the military to act as an "offensive unit" against rival members of the then-banned African National Congress and other anti-apartheid groups.
Cheers and loud clapping by family members and Inkatha officials erupted in the packed courtroom when the acquittals were announced.
Scores of Inkatha supporters waved wooden clubs, danced and chanted outside the courthouse under heavy police guard. Police snipers were stationed on nearby roofs.
Malan, 66, who headed the government's unconventional war against anti-apartheid groups in South Africa and neighboring states, predicted that he too will be acquitted.
"My conscience is clear," he told reporters.
Twenty people were originally charged in this case, but four were released for lack of evidence during the seven-month trial.
Besides Malan, the nine remaining co-defendants include: former army chief Kat Liebenberg, 57; former defense force chief Jannie Geldenhuys, 60; former military intelligence chief Andries Putter, 59; and M. Z. Khumalo, 52, deputy secretary-general of Inkatha.
Koos van der Merwe, an Inkatha member of Parliament, called the judge's initial ruling "a mighty triumph for justice."
Meeting reporters outside the court, he said: "The time has come for the police and government to prosecute ANC killers. The vilification of Inkatha must stop."
Innocent verdicts are likely to undermine largely unsuccessful efforts by the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to persuade perpetrators of apartheid-era atrocities to voluntarily confess their crimes in exchange for amnesty.
Only a handful of former security police and other officials have applied for amnesty so far.
In an indication of the commission's growing frustration, the panel last week announced plans to issue subpoenas to compel testimony from several former ranking police officials, including former Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok.
The prosecution of Malan and the other former military leaders was far more ambitious in scope than the recent trial in Pretoria of Eugene de Kock, a former police colonel who headed a notorious death squad. De Kock is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of 89 crimes, including six murders.
Tim McNally, the provincial attorney general, sat stone-faced during the daylong hearing here in the Durban Supreme Court, showing no reaction when Hugo criticized his case as "shortsighted and lacking in proper thought."
The stern, red-robed judge bitterly attacked the credibility of the three main prosecution witnesses, especially former military intelligence operative Capt. Johan Opperman, who admitted directing the operation that led to the massacre.
Hugo repeatedly denounced Opperman as a "liar" and "naive," calling his claims that the attack had been approved by higher-ups in the military "ridiculous" and "farcical."
Hugo described another witness, former military intelligence Sgt. Andre Cloete, as a "weak person" who could be "badgered into making any confession."
Opperman, Cloete and the third state witness, confessed hit squad member Bhekisa Alex Khumalo, testified in hopes of winning immunity from prosecution for their own role in the massacre. Hugo is expected to rule on that today as well.
The three testified that the target of the Jan. 21, 1987, attack was anti-apartheid activist Victor Ntuli. But he was not home that night, and, instead, a priest, five women and seven children were riddled with bullets from AK-47 assault rifles as they slept.