Four political detainees escaped Monday from a hospital where they were recuperating after a hunger strike and found refuge in the West German Embassy 40 miles away. They demanded freedom for all activists being held without charge by the South African government.
“We have commited no crime,” the four men said in a statement issued by the Detainees Aid Center.
“We have been kept in detention for so long that we felt we had to embark on a life-and-death hunger strike to secure our release. We (escaped) after it became clear there is no intention to release us.”
The four blacks, 21 to 28 years old, were leaders in youth organizations affiliated with the United Democratic Front, the country’s largest anti-apartheid coalition. They had been held for periods ranging from eight months to nearly two years.
Their attorney, Priscilla Jana, said they were granted asylum by the West German Embassy. Embassy officials declined to comment except to say that the four had been allowed into the walled embassy mission a few blocks from South Africa’s administrative headquarters in Pretoria, the capital, and that the embassy was in contact with the South African government.
Roelof F. (Pik) Botha, the South African foreign minister, issued a statement saying that “the matter is receiving attention.” He said it is regrettable that the men escaped when “only a relatively small number are still in detention and each case is being reviewed daily.”
Human rights activists estimate that 500 political activists remain in custody under the 33-month-old state of emergency. As many as 100 have been in jail for more than two years without trial, and about 30,000 have been detained for varying periods since June, 1986.
About 300 detainees have taken part in a hunger strike since Jan. 23, demanding that they be charged or released. The strike was suspended last month when the minister of law and order, Adriaan Vlok, agreed to review each detainee’s case and release “a substantial number.”
The government says about 500 have been released in recent months, many under restrictions that inhibit their movement and prevent them from participating in political activity.
Anti-apartheid leaders complain that too few have been freed and that dozens more people have been arrested since Vlok’s pledge.
Monday’s incident marked the second time in six months that activists held without charge have slipped out of a hospital and sought refuge in a diplomatic mission.
On Sept. 13, three prominent anti-apartheid leaders left a hospital where they were undergoing physical therapy and fled to the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg. They left five weeks later after being assured by the government that no action would be taken against them.
The four men involved Monday escaped from their guarded rooms in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow Hospital. Their attorney said they took a taxi to the West German Embassy. The men waved to reporters from the embassy foyer. One was wearing a T-shirt bearing the message: “Release All Detainees. Support the Hunger Strikers.”
The four were identified as Ephraim Nkoe, 28, of the South African Youth Congress, who had been held eight months; Mpho Lekgoro, 24, of the Saulsville-Atteridgeville Youth Congress, held a year; Clive Radebe, 28, of the Soweto Youth Congress, held 16 months, and Job Sithole, 21, of the Alexandra Youth Congress, held 23 months.