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Former anti-apartheid activist Mohamed Timol, brother of late Ahmed Timol, holds up a copy of the book "Timol - A quest for justice" at the judgement proceedings at The Pretoria High Court in Pretoria on October 12, 2017.

A South African judge has demolished an apartheid-era cover-up, ruling that an anti-apartheid activist was brutally murdered by police who then tried to conceal their crime by calling it suicide.

Policemen tortured and killed Ahmed Timol at a notorious Johannesburg police station in 1971, throwing him to his death from the top of the building, Judge Billy Mothle ruled on Thursday after a lengthy inquest.

It is a stunning and historic ruling: the first time South African authorities have overturned an apartheid cover-up of a death in detention. After decades of official neglect, Thursday's ruling could finally lead to criminal charges and a broader investigation of apartheid atrocities.

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The courtroom in Pretoria was packed, with the benches full and many people standing in the aisles. The room burst into applause at the end of the judge's ruling. Human-rights activists and family members were ecstatic at the judgment, seeing it as long-awaited justice after nearly half a century of fighting for the truth.

Mr. Timol was among at least 73 people who died in apartheid detention from the 1960s to the 80s. But until now, the African National Congress government has shown little interest in reopening these cases, even though the families of the dead have been seeking justice.

One of the policemen who witnessed Mr. Timol's death, Joao Rodrigues, is still alive and could face criminal charges – including perjury and accessory to murder – as a result of Thursday's ruling.

Now 78, he testified at the inquest in July and stuck loyally to the official version of the apartheid authorities, insisting that Mr. Timol leaped to his death from a 10th-floor window at the police station. But the judge ruled on Thursday that this claim was completely contradicted by all the evidence.

Mr. Rodrigues had "participated in the cover-up to conceal the crime of murder as an accessory after the fact, and went on to commit perjury by presenting contradictory evidence before the 1972 and 2017 inquests," Judge Mothle ruled. "He should accordingly be investigated with a view to his prosecution."

Two other former policemen had also misled the court, Judge Mothle said.

South Africa's prosecuting authority must now decide whether to investigate the surviving policemen and lay criminal charges against Mr. Rodrigues. But most of those who participated in Mr. Timol's murder had died without facing justice.

At the inquest, expert witnesses testified that the official version of Mr. Timol's death was impossible. Trajectory experts, examining the spot where he fell, concluded that he was probably pushed to his death and could not have jumped. Medical experts found that he was severely injured before his death, presumably from torture. A fellow prisoner said he glimpsed Mr. Timol in the police station before his death, almost unable to walk, wearing a hood and being dragged by police.

South Africa held a much-praised Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid, but the authorities ignored its call for further criminal investigation into hundreds of unsolved cases after it finished its work.

Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, welcomed the judge's finding of murder in the Timol case. "It's sad that it took so long," Mr. Tutu said in a message to the Timol family on Thursday.

George Bizos, a renowned human-rights lawyer who sought justice for the Timol case and many other deaths in apartheid detention in the 1970s, said the judge's finding should lead to a national inquiry into all deaths in detention.

The Timol family agreed. "We would like to view the reopened Timol inquest as a beginning, not an end," said Mr. Timol's nephew, Imtiaz Cajee, who spent decades in a quest for the truth.

Until now, nobody has ever been held responsible for the deaths in police custody, he said. "In most instances, inquests did not take place. Deaths of political detainees were recorded as accidents or suicides, postmortem examinations went unrecorded – if they were held – and the bodies were buried as quickly as possible."

Judge Mothle, in his ruling, said there are "many more families" who need truth and healing for the "unanswered questions" about the deaths of their relatives in detention. They should get official assistance in obtaining the necessary records to reopen the apartheid-era cases, he said.

One of those still seeking the truth is a man named Lasch Mabelane, whose brother Matthew, an anti-apartheid activist, died mysteriously in police custody in 1977. The police claimed he fell to his death from the 10th floor of the same police station in Johannesburg where Mr. Timol died – a bizarre echo of the same implausible scenario that was used in the Timol case.

Mr. Mabelane was in the courtroom on Thursday when the Timol ruling was delivered, and he said the judgment "absolutely" gives him greater hope that he might finally learn the truth about his brother's death.

"My dad is 95 years of age, and he will rest in peace only if we can get closure, if the case can be brought before a court of law, so that he knows what happened to his son," Lasch Mabelane told The Globe and Mail. "Every parent loves their kids, and he can get peace when he gets the truth of what happened."

A United Nations report in 1979 said the police version of Matthew Mabelane's death was "absurd." It said the "irresistible" conclusion is that he was tortured and forced out of the window.

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