Mandela’s lawyer back in court

JOHANNESBURG – Forty years after George Bizos argued Nelson Mandela’s innocence in a high-profile treason trial, the top human rights lawyer now finds himself in a Zimbabwean court pleading a similar case. The Greek-South African attorney is probably best known for his role in the Rivonia trial of 1963, which saw Mandela imprisoned in apartheid South Africa for 27 years, but saved him from the death penalty. Bizos, 74, this week started defending Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on charges of high treason brought by President Robert Mugabe’s government. «However oppressive a regime might be, the court is the last forum in which an oppressed person has an opportunity to speak out,» Bizos said in a recent television interview. He has been outspoken about the lack of rule of law in Zimbabwe, saying he believed the justice minister «does not distinguish between the rule of law and rule by law.» Tsvangirai and his co-defendants, two senior MDC members, face the death penalty. In the past five decades, Bizos has played a key role in defending apartheid activists in South Africa, including Mandela and his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. He first arrived in South Africa at the age of 13 after he and his father escaped the German occupation of Greece on a small sailing boat in 1941. They were picked up by a British ship and made their way to South Africa to start a new life. Seven years later, he enrolled in law school at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where he first became politically active. «Particularly for a law student like myself… I found myself arguing – not on the basis of law but emotionally – with my professor of constitutional law about the steps being taken by the government to disenfranchise colored people. We felt those things strongly,» he said. Bizos and Mandela met as law students in the 1950s and later often worked together as attorney and advocate. His track record and commitment to upholding human rights led him to join the African National Congress defense team in the Rivonia trial where eight men, including Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, faced the death penalty. Bizos, although a junior member of the defense team at the time, has been credited for proposing that Mandela make a statement from the dock rather than submitting to cross-examination. The decision has been described as a tactical move that may have saved Mandela from the death penalty. It resulted in his famous speech from the dock where he pledged his life for the ideal of a free and democratic society. Mandela later said of Bizos’s defense: «People like George Bizos were there defending us. If we had been alone, or had not been defended, or had been defended by lawyers who were just carrying out their duty and without interest in the ideas in which we believed, our morale would have been very low.» Bizos became renowned for fighting for basic human rights under apartheid, and since its collapse, has worked to ensure that those rights, guaranteed under South Africa’s new constitution, were accorded to all citizens. He represented prominent families at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings into crimes committed during the apartheid era, and blocked amnesty applications from the killers of several activists. Bizos also defended the family of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko, one of several militants whose deaths under police detention he questioned during inquest hearings. In his autobiography, «No One to Blame,» Bizos wrote that the damning information and bad publicity for the regime that emerged during those hearings «probably hastened the rise of the (state) death squads.» «George was a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind,» Mandela wrote in his autobiography. «Although he could have become prime minister of South Africa, he became one of the bravest and staunchest friends of the freedom struggle that I have ever known.»