Nearly 30 years after his death at a bloodied house in Cape Town’s Athlone, the Hawks have reopened the cold case file into how struggle hero Ashley Kriel died at the hands of apartheid police torturer Jeffrey Benzien.
In 1999, Benzien was granted full amnesty for killing Kriel, but Kriel’s family approached the National Prosecuting Authority to reopen the case this year after a new documentary on Kriel’s life, called Action Kommandant: The Untold Story of a Guerrilla, apparently brought fresh evidence to light.
This week, Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed that the prosecuting authority had assigned them “to locate the docket and get fresh information, if available”.
At Kriel’s death inquest at the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court in 1987, Benzien testified that the young man had died in a scuffle.
At the time, forensic scientist David Klatzow testified that police were covering up a murder, as Kriel had clearly been shot in the back, from a distance.
This week, Mulaudzi confirmed that a Hawks investigating officer contacted Klatzow for new evidence last month, but they were still waiting to receive information.
Meanwhile, Klatzow showed City Press an old, leather-bound book with pages of scrawled notes about Kriel’s death, plus photos of his dead body and copies of documents, including a police autopsy report, which is conspicuously devoid of detail.
Records compiled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) relate how Benzien, then a member of the SA Police’s now defunct terrorist detection unit – and a colleague called Constable Ables – arrived at Kriel’s house in Athlone disguised as municipal employees pretending to check the sewerage, when a scuffle ensued.
“Kriel suddenly stood up, but Benzien held him from behind with the pistol still in his hand. Then a shot went off and Kriel fell to the ground. He had been wounded and blood came out of his mouth and nose. Ables handcuffed Kriel. Benzien went to his vehicle and radioed for help. When Benzien returned, he found that Kriel was dead,” reads the document.
“Benzien maintained that their intention was to arrest Kriel and not to kill him. He said that the shooting was accidental,” according to the document.
Benzien’s “wet bag method” made headlines internationally when he demonstrated it at TRC hearings in 1997. It involved a cloth being placed over the heads of victims, which took them to the brink of asphyxiation (suffocation from lack of oxygen), repeatedly.
He also used this method on ANC leader Tony Yengeni, who confronted him at the TRC hearings.
Now 70, the retired security officer lives in Cape Town’s northern suburbs with his wife.
Several telephonic and emailed efforts to contact him via official SA Police Service spokespeople were unsuccessful. He has not spoken to the media since the TRC hearings.
Kriel was a popular emerging Umkhonto weSizwe leader when he was killed at the age of 20.
Kriel’s older sister, Michel Assure – who identified his body at the Salt River Mortuary in 1987 – told City Press that the TRC had failed them.
“There was blood on the floor, splattered on the walls, on clothes. How did all that blood get there? It has been difficult to deal with all the hurt and the anger.”
Assure says Benzien extended his hand to her after the TRC hearings, but she could not take it.
“I would not take his hand, and I still feel the same way. My experience is, he was putting on a show. I am a Christian and the Bible teaches us not to judge people, but he is a cruel and devious man.”
Nelson Mandela lauded Kriel for his contribution to the fight against apartheid in a speech upon the former’s release from prison in 1990.
The new documentary on Kriel’s life will be screened at the Encounters SA International Documentary Film Festival in June.