JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Disgraced anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak, imprisoned last year for fraud and theft, was granted an early release Tuesday, sparking allegations by some prisoners' rights activists of judicial favoritism for the privileged.
Boesak was freed from a penitentiary near Cape Town after serving one year of a three-year sentence for stealing $400,000 from charitable donations made to his Foundation for Peace and Justice, including substantial contributions from singer Paul Simon.
South African prison rules allow for the release of inmates who have served a third of their sentences.
"I don't know how these people who sent me to prison sleep at night," said Boesak, formerly a provincial leader for the ruling African National Congress, who continues to maintain his innocence. "I'm not going to waste my time being bitter."
But critics charged that Boesak's speedy parole hearing and the subsequent decision to free him were based not on merit but on his political profile as a once prominent ANC official.
The South African Prisoners' Organization for Human Rights, or SAPOHR, said the special treatment for Boesak made a mockery of the parole system. It argued that thousands of inmates, some of them sentenced as long ago as 1970, are languishing in prison without a realistic date for parole.
"The question is, does the system work equally for all of us regardless of what our political affiliation or background is?" said SAPOHR President Golden Miles Bhudu. "The answer is unambiguously no. We need to rectify the system so that we are all treated the same."
Bhudu called on relatives of eligible prisoners to demand that their loved ones be immediately given parole dates. The opposition Democratic Alliance said in a statement that it accepted the parole board's decision to free Boesak "provided there was no undue political interference in the decision-making process."
Boesak, a Dutch Reformed Mission Church minister who once headed the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, was convicted on four counts of fraud and theft after reports emerged that money he was raising to help disadvantaged children and others was going into his own pocket and financing a lavish lifestyle.
The only thing he has ever admitted to is sloppy bookkeeping, and he has argued that some of the funds from Simon were a personal gift.
Boesak's imprisonment brought to a close an embarrassing and emotional saga for the ANC, which had cleared him of wrongdoing during an internal investigation. Top party officials, including former President Nelson Mandela, have stood resolutely by him and suggested that any misuse of donations was unintentional and paled in significance when measured against his role in the struggle against white-minority rule.
On Tuesday, the ANC welcomed Boesak's release.
"Whether he chooses to do it through the church, politics or social services, we mustn't lose these skills and talents," ANC Western Cape leader Ebrahim Rasool told reporters.
"We wish his family well after enduring such pain, and, as the ANC, we will continue to hold Dr. Boesak in high esteem for the role that he played and continues to play in our transformation," said Smuts Ngonyama, the party's national spokesman.
Rasool noted that the party's displeasure over Boesak's detention was a matter of principle.
"A hero from our liberation struggle had to go to jail while apartheid criminals walked free," he said. "That will always be the cause of this unhappiness."
An eloquent orator often compared to Martin Luther King Jr., Boesak was founder of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front.
He was arrested in 1985 for organizing a march on Pollsmoor Prison, where Mandela was being detained after a long imprisonment on Robben Island. The former president once considered Boesak for an ambassadorial post.
Boesak said Tuesday that he was unsure about what he will do and whether he will go back into politics. He said he had three writing projects underway but was looking forward to spending time with his wife and relatives.
"It's great to be outside," Boesak said. "It's wonderful to be with my family. My faith has been strengthened."