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Monday, 28 January, 2002, 17:10 GMT
SA rugby murder trial begins
Mourners carry Tshepo Matloha's coffin
The trial was moved after crowds invaded the court
By Carolyn Dempster in Pretoria

A group of nine white rugby players accused of murdering a black teenager who they found trespassing on a farm have appeared in Pretoria's High Court.

South African policeman
Police have been criticised for their handling of the case

Although all nine pleaded innocent to murder, two of the defendants admitted to dumping the body of Tshepo Matloha in a Northern Province dam.

All charges were dropped against four of them.

It has been almost a year since the 19-year-old was beaten to death on the Inderheken farm north of Pietersburg.

In a case that shocked the country, his body was tied to a metal gate and the dumped into the crocodile-infested Arabie dam some 140 miles away.

'Racist killing'

The media has dubbed this a racist killing from the outset, which is probably why the most senior judge in the province, Judge President Bernard Ngoepe, is presiding, assisted by 2 assessors.

The charges include murder, attempted murder and defeating the ends of justice.

On Monday, two of the men accused of Mr Matloha's murder admitted that they had tried to dispose of the teenager's body.

One confessed that he had caught Mr Matloha and shot five of the youth's hunting dogs.

But all of the accused entered a not-guilty plea at the Pretoria court.

When the accused first appeared in Pietersburg, an angry crowd invaded the courtroom and threatened to kill the rugby players.

In Pretoria there were no protestors, no placards, no razor wire, no barricades and only a handful of policemen.

Divided courtroom

Family members of the white rugby players sat stony faced and silent on the right hand side of the court.

Relatives and friends of the dead teenager sat on the wooden benches to the left, an invisible line dividing the two groups.

Maria Matloha mourns her son, Tshepo, at his funeral
The killing shocked the nation

At the start of the trial, charges against four of the accused were withdrawn by the state prosecutor, but no reasons were given.

The relieved men told reporters outside the court that now at least they could get on with their lives and get back to playing rugby.

For the remaining five accused, it promises to be a long and drawn out affair.

Riaan Botha, the owner of the game farm where the killing occurred, confessed in his statement to the court that he had acted rashly and irrationally.

He admitted to shooting Mr Matloha's dogs and to catching the teenager and leaving him in the care of his friends in the back of a pick-up truck.

He said he went in pursuit of Mr Matloha's two companions, Alex and Melford Motlokwane.

Body dumped

But when he returned to the truck, he said his friends told him the teenager had tried to escape and had fallen from the back of the truck.

At that stage the boy was bleeding from the mouth.

By the following day he was dead and Mr Botha said he helped to dump the boy's body in the Arabie dam.

The police role in the whole saga is also likely to come under severe scrutiny .

It is alleged that Matloha's body went missing after police were called to the scene. The full details of what really happened are likely to emerge slowly over the next two weeks.

See also:

14 May 01 | Africa
'Race' trial in South Africa
30 Aug 00 | Africa
South Africa: Racism runs deep
13 Mar 01 | Africa
White SA farmer facing eviction
28 May 99 | South Africa elections
South Africa's crime crisis
25 Feb 01 | Africa
Mandela steps into racism row
30 Aug 00 | Africa
Whites reject Mbeki criticism
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