Twenty-two leading black dissidents went on trial for their lives near Johannesburg today, pleading innocent to charges of high treason laid out in a 300-page indictment.
The dissidents, all leaders of the 2-million-member United Democratic Front, have been held since their arrest during an army clampdown last June. They are accused of conspiring to overthrow the white minority government.
Lawyers said they expect the trial, the second major treason prosecution in six months, to last about a year.
The 22 include UDF Publicity Secretary Patrick Lekota and General Secretary Popo Molefe, both veterans of the Robben Island political prison where nationalist leader Nelson Mandela was held for 20 years until his transfer to a mainland prison two years ago.
Admit UDF Membership
All pleaded innocent of high treason, which carries a possible death sentence, in the Delmas circuit court about 40 miles east of Johannesburg.
They admitted that they were members of the UDF, the nation's largest opposition movement, but argued that the organization is neither banned nor restricted. They denied plotting violence against the government.
Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange claimed that the UDF is a front for the outlawed African National Congress, a black guerrilla movement blamed by the government for 16 months of bloody opposition to white rule.
The Pietermaritzburg branch of the Supreme Court dismissed similar treason charges Dec. 9 against 12 UDF leaders.
One of Quietest Weekends
Police in Pretoria today reported only isolated incidents of racial violence around the nation during one of the quietest weekends in 16 months.
Officers fired shotguns and tear gas in some instances, but no injuries were reported, police said.
The wave of violent protests against white rule began near Johannesburg early in September, 1984. Since then, about 1,080 people have been killed, more than half of them by police.
More than 10,000 other people have been detained without charges since President Pieter W. Botha declared a state of emergency around Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth six months ago today.