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Thursday, 17 August 1989
Page: 271

Senator COLLINS —My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and relates to that group of people in South Africa who have become known as the Upington 26, all of whom are under sentence of death for their alleged common purpose in the death of a police officer in 1985. Can the Minister advise the Senate of the current position of these people and what steps the Australian Government has taken to communicate its position on this matter to the South African Government?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The situation is that 14 of the 26 defendants in what has become known as the Upington case were sentenced to death in South Africa on 26 May for the death of a black policeman on 13 November 1985. The court ruled that there were no extenuating circumstances. As Senator Collins has said, they were convicted on the basis of so-called common purpose with a mob of 300 that attacked the policeman's house. The Upington murder took place against a background of heightened racial tension after police tear gassed a meeting, and the murdered policeman is alleged to have fired on the crowd in question. The case is very similar to the case of the Sharpeville six who were sentenced to death on the basis of that same doctrine of common purpose. The Sharpeville six were reprieved last November after diplomatic pressure from many nations including Australia.

The Upington sentences have been very widely condemned. Critics point to the striking disparity in the sentences. Those on death row were in fact convicted on the same evidence as the 12 who were given custodial and suspended sentences. Lawyers for the Upington 14, as they now are, have petitioned the Chief Justice of the Appellate Division for leave to appeal against their conviction and death sentences. Leave to appeal was originally refused by the trial judge. This current petition constitutes the last step in the legal process. Should it be rejected, clemency will be sought from the State President. The Australian Government, in accordance with normal practice in these matters, will await the outcome of the appeal process before taking any further action on the matter. However, should the appeal fail the Government would wish to make further strong representations in order to try to save the lives of these people.

Finally, the Australian Government deplores any act of wanton violence, particularly if it leads to death. However, we have consistently and universally opposed the imposition of the death sentence as being a cruel and inhuman form of punishment. If the sentences are proceeded with, as many people fear will be the case, they will only exacerbate an already very tense political climate which is caused by the continued denial of political freedoms to the vast majority of South Africa's people.