S. Africa Frees 4 Killers of Southland Student
Four men convicted of murdering Newport Beach exchange student Amy Biehl walked free from prison Tuesday in a dramatic demonstration of this country’s contentious attempt to build a peaceful future by forgiving its violent past.
“We hope they will receive the support necessary to live productive lives in a nonviolent atmosphere,” Biehl’s parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, said in a statement issued to the media. “In fact, we hope the spirits of Amy and those like her will be a force in their lives.”
The four black men, who admitted to killing Biehl during an anti-apartheid protest in 1993 solely because she was white, were released just hours after a government-appointed panel ruled that the attack was politically motivated and therefore qualified for amnesty under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act.
Under the law, approved by Parliament to help put the apartheid era to rest, applicants who confess to crimes of a political nature are eligible to be pardoned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so long as they disclose everything they know about the incidents. The sweeping provision has brought the details of thousands of crimes to light, but it also has inspired a bitter debate about the honesty, sincerity and worthiness of the applicants.
“It is fairly understandable that people will feel outraged by the fact that someone was murdered and the murderers will walk away,” said Brandon Hamber of the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. “If people look at the Biehl case and see a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, it generates a sense of sympathy and confusion and brings into question the whole idea of what this amnesty thing really means.”
After lying about their role in Biehl’s death during their murder trials in 1994 and 1995, the killers last year did an abrupt about-face. They told the truth commission’s amnesty committee that they brutally stoned and stabbed the 26-year-old Fulbright scholar as part of a broad political campaign to make South Africa ungovernable in the waning days of apartheid.
In particular, they said, they were incited by the “one settler, one bullet” slogan of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a radical black group that referred to whites as settlers.
“Our killing Amy Biehl had everything to do with politics--the unrest at the time and international attention helped bring South Africa to where we are today,” testified Ntobeko Ambrose Peni, one of the four.
“We chased after her and I tripped her and she fell down,” another of the killers, Mongezi Christopher Manqina, told the hearing last July. “I asked one of the persons in the crowd for a knife . . . and moved toward [Biehl] as she was sitting down. . . . I took the knife and stabbed her once.”
The other two men released were Easy Mzikhona Nofemela and Vusumzi Samuel Ntamo.
In its unanimous decision Tuesday, the five-member amnesty committee said the attackers “were so aroused and incited that they lost control of themselves and got caught up in a frenzy of violence.” The committee concluded that the killers believed that by murdering whites, opponents of apartheid were “sending a serious political message” to the white-minority regime.
Biehl, who was finishing up a year of research and study at the University of the Western Cape, had ventured into the black township of Gugulethu near Cape Town to drop off three friends when her car was attacked. The passengers tried to call off the angry mob by explaining that Biehl was not South African, but her killers were undeterred.
“To them, this meant every white person was an enemy of the black people,” the amnesty committee said. “At that moment to them, Amy Biehl was a representative of the white community.”
The four men released Tuesday served just a fraction of their 18-year prison terms. But under the amnesty law, they can never again be prosecuted or punished--in criminal or civil matters--in the Biehl case. As such, they join a small and controversial group of South African criminals. Fewer than 100 of the 7,060 amnesty applicants have been granted a pardon, although the committee has yet to consider more than half of the requests.
“I want to say that I am sorry to Amy Biehl’s family for what I have caused to their daughter,” Manqina told reporters Tuesday. “I know how much they love their daughter, like any parents who love their sons or daughters.”
Peter and Linda Biehl, who had returned from a trip to South Africa on Sunday, got the news by phone at 1 a.m. Tuesday.
“We certainly did expect it,” said Peter Biehl, a 55-year-old business consultant, “but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
The Biehls have received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to run an anti-violence project in Cape Town. They travel there about every other month from their home in La Quinta, near Palm Springs.
The Biehls expressed no grudge against the newly freed killers.
“It’s a process bigger than ourselves,” said Amy’s sister, Molly Biehl Corbin, 28, of San Diego, explaining how she and her family have been able to forgive the killers. “It’s a process that will help the future of their country. I don’t feel insulted. I don’t feel like my work is undermined. . . . It doesn’t diminish the impact Amy has on the world.”
“One thing I would wish to communicate to the four individuals is that they got a second chance in life that my sister didn’t get, and I hope they would do something productive.”
But the Biehls’ underlying optimism is not shared by many South Africans, at least not when it comes to the truth and reconciliation process.
The guiding philosophy of the government commission, which is headed by former Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, is that getting at the truth--and eventually racial reconciliation--is more important than punishing criminals of a bygone era. The approach also has a highly political backdrop. The amnesty provisions were a crucial part of negotiations that led to the peaceful transfer of power by the white minority government four years ago.
But in an opinion poll released this week, A. C. Nielsen Market Research Africa revealed that about two-thirds of respondents among South African urbanites say the panel has worsened race relations. Whites are particularly skeptical. A survey in 1996 by the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation showed that only one-third of white respondents believed that allegations made to the panel by victims of apartheid were truthful.
Times staff writer Renee Tawa in Costa Mesa contributed to this report.