Pretoria (AFP) – One of South Africa's most notorious mass murderers, Eugene de Kock, was granted parole on Friday after 20 years in jail, a decision that brought back painful memories of the crimes committed under apartheid rule.
"In the interest of nation-building and reconciliation I have decided to place Mr De Kock on parole," Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha told a news briefing, adding that he had rejected parole to two other prominent convicted apartheid-era killers.
De Kock, dubbed "Prime Evil", was sentenced in 1996 to two life terms plus 212 years in prison for his activities as head of the infamous Vlakplaas police death squad targeting anti-apartheid activists.
The highly-decorated former colonel confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 and chaired by Archbishop Tutu to consider amnesty for those who confessed their crimes during apartheid.
De Kock was granted amnesty for most offences — including the 1982 bombing of the ANC's London offices — but was jailed for six murders found to have lacked direct political motivation.
Tutu welcomed his release saying it was a way of putting memories of apartheid behind.
"As human beings we have unique capacities to reconcile, to forgive, to move on and to love again," he said in a statement.
"While many may not welcome De Kock back into society with open arms, the fact that we have allowed for his return is to our collective credit, as people and as a nation."
Others, however, expressed outrage saying De Kock deserved no clemency.
"So many people don't have parents because of Eugene de Kock," wrote user Mulume Vizo on Twitter.
"I don’t think we should be undoing the process of punishment for apartheid crimes before we have completed actually doing them," Jane Quinn told Talk Radio 702.
The run-up to the parole decision rekindled bitter debate over the crimes of the former white-minority regime.
To some, De Kock's crimes of multiple murder, kidnapping and torture were too heinous for forgiveness, and his release was widely derided by South Africans on social media.
To others, the former police officer was a symbolic and repentant prisoner serving time as a scapegoat for countless perpetrators of apartheid evil who were never punished.
It's a point De Kock made in his court appeal of last year's parole denial.
"I am the only member of the South African Police Service that is serving a sentence for crimes which I had committed, as part of the National Party's attempt to uphold apartheid and fight the liberation movements.
"Not one of the previous Generals, or Ministers who were in Cabinet up to 1990 have been prosecuted at all," he wrote.
– Model prisoner –
De Kock has by all accounts been a model prisoner, engaging with the families of his victims and cooperating with the government in locating the dumped bodies of his victims.
He has made confessions before tribunals, written letters begging forgiveness and named top officials who gave him orders.
In announcing his decision, corrections minister Masutha noted the assistance De Kock had provided to the authorities and said he was also satisfied that the families of his victims had been consulted.
But walking a political tight-rope, he added that De Kock could return to jail if he failed to comply with the set conditions of his parole.
Masutha said De Kock had asked that the date of his release and the conditions of his parole should not be made public, to which the minister agreed.