Criticism OKd in South Africa : But Court Endorses State of Emergency

Times Staff Writer

A South African court, in an important affirmation of civil liberties here, declared on Wednesday that most of the emergency regulations prohibiting criticism of the country's white-led, minority government are invalid. But the court nevertheless upheld the basic legality of the five-week-old national state of emergency.

A three-judge panel of the Natal provincial Supreme Court ruled that much of President Pieter W. Botha's decree that made any "subversive statement" a crime punishable by 10 years in prison is too vague, and it ordered substantial deletions from the long list of what the government deems to be subversive.

The immediate effect, civil rights lawyers said, will probably be to allow anti-apartheid activists to resume limited activities and to permit the press to publish statements the government might earlier have construed as subversive.

The court also ordered the government to allow political detainees access to their lawyers, thus opening the way to legal actions that might help secure their release. Under the emergency regulations, detainees could be held, indefinitely and incommunicado, without being charged with a crime.

But the judges rejected a request by the predominantly black Metal and Allied Workers Union that all of the emergency measures be declared invalid on grounds that the government had failed to give Parliament a chance to debate the state of emergency. This leaves most of the government's emergency powers intact.

Meanwhile, 12 black men were reported Wednesday to have been killed in the country's continuing civil strife--one of the bloodiest days since the government declared the state of emergency and assumed virtual martial-law authority in order to quell the widespread political violence.

According to the government's Information Bureau, which under the emergency regulations is the sole official source of news on the unrest here, 11 men died in the troubled Kwandebele tribal homeland northeast of Pretoria. Supporters of plans for Kwandebele's nominal independence from South Africa have clashed frequently in the past eight months with those adamantly opposed.

Shot, Burned in Hut

Nine of the victims were shot with an AK-47 assault rifle, and their bodies then burned in a hut in the village of Vlaklaagte. Two other burned bodies were found elsewhere in Kwandebele.

Rumors of mass killings in Kwandebele have been widespread for the past two weeks, but until now the government has denied them and refused to allow newsmen into the area, which has been closed to all non-residents under the state of emergency.

Other emergency regulations prevent newsmen from personally covering any incidents of unrest, from reporting the actions by the police and army unless officially disclosed and, until the Durban court ruling, from quoting "subversive statements" by opposition leaders.

The other black death reported Wednesday was in Umlazi, a black ghetto township outside Durban, in what appeared to be renewed feuding between politically moderate blacks and militants.

Rent Protest in Soweto

In Soweto, the black satellite city outside Johannesburg, municipal police opened fire with shotguns, according to the Information Bureau, on a crowd of 500 people protesting plans to evict them from their homes for refusing to pay rent and utility charges. Rumors circulated widely that at least five people were killed, but community leaders at the scene said only two had been hospitalized.

A 77-year-old white man, a railways pensioner, was found dead in the trunk of his car in Port Elizabeth.

In their ruling on the emergency regulations, the three Natal Supreme Court judges made clear they were critical of what they called the "deep inroads made into the rights of all the people in the country" by the government, but stressed that they lacked the authority either to declare invalid the state of emergency itself or the regulations as a whole.

"This court has no power whatsoever to review the statutes of Parliament," Justice John M. Didcott said, ruling that the government had the authority to declare a state of emergency and in doing so to assume sweeping powers. If Parliament believed this authority had been abused, Didcott said, only it could remedy the problem.

Only on Narrow Grounds

To its evident frustration, the court found itself able to rule only on the narrow legal grounds of whether Botha had exceeded his authority in promulgating regulations under the state of emergency and whether these regulations were legal.

Didcott, acting with the concurrence of two other senior Supreme Court judges, held that only one of six sections of the regulations concerning "subversive statements" was "manageable" as written.

Two sections he ruled invalid as "hopelessly vague" and "unintelligible," and three others he ordered amended significantly.

In a move that senior civil rights lawyers regard as equally important, Didcott declared that "the mere expression of political opinion is not subversive," even under the emergency regulations.

Binding in Natal

The court's decision is binding throughout Natal province, but it may be cited as the basis for similar cases in other provinces and will probably be accepted there. A further ruling may still be sought, however, from the Appeals Court, the country's highest tribunal.

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