Ramon Leon, judge during apartheid era admired for his liberal record

22 April 2018 - 00:00 By Chris Barron

Ramon Leon, who has died in Durban at the age of 93, was a Supreme Court judge for more than 20 years during the apartheid era.
In 1986 Leon - father of former DA leader Tony Leon - sentenced 19-year-old Umkhonto weSizwe operative Andrew Zondo to death after he detonated a bomb at the Amanzimtoti shopping centre on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast on December 23 1985, killing five people, including two children, and injuring 48.
In his judgment, Leon described Zondo as a person of high intelligence, and wrote sympathetically of the reasons why he had decided to take up arms against the state.
He noted that this was an act committed, as Zondo saw it, as a soldier of the ANC, in service of his people.In conclusion Leon wrote that what weighed most with him and his assessors was that Zondo on his own evidence disregarded the ANC's policy not to target civilians, and chose a time and place that would ensure the maximum deaths.
Zondo denied that he had intended to kill anyone. He told the court that his plan was to plant the bomb and then go to the nearby post office and phone in a warning. But the phone booths were all occupied.
An accomplice who turned state witness said the bomb was in retaliation for the South African Defence Force attack on ANC safe houses in Lesotho three days earlier in which nine people were killed.
He said Zondo had expressed dissatisfaction that fewer people had been killed in the explosion than in the Maseru raid.Leon ruled that there were no extenuating circumstances and that as such the death penalty was mandatory.
Leon, who was a member of the Liberal Party (he hid party leader Alan Paton in his house when the security police were looking for him during the state of emergency after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre) and founding member of the Progressive Party in 1959, was opposed to capital punishment.
Two years after Zondo's sentencing he retired from the bench and became a vocal supporter of the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
He said he'd had to impose the death sentence on "a fair number of occasions", and it had always caused him "acute distress".
In 1960 Leon defended 28 people accused of murdering nine policemen during the Cato Manor riots, which started when policemen raided the densely populated slum outside Durban and confiscated illegal liquor. After a case lasting 87 court days, 10 of the accused were sentenced to death.
In 1985, in a case brought against the minister of law and order by Archbishop Denis Hurley, Leon ordered the release of a detainee held under the notorious section 29 of the Internal Security Act. It was the first time a detention order issued in terms of this clause had been invalidated by a judge.His ruling was praised by John Hlophe, now judge president of the Western Cape division of the high court, who said it displayed "a relatively liberal attitude which should be warmly welcomed".
Legal academics regarded it as a landmark in the judicial protection of civil rights. From then on if the state intended to use the law as an instrument for control and domination it would have to reckon with the judiciary, wrote a law professor.
In Natal Newspapers v the State President, Leon set aside draconian media regulations imposed during the state of emergency of 1986.
Leon was born in Johannesburg on March 31 1925. He matriculated at Durban High School and graduated with a BA LLB at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg in 1948, where he was president of the student representative council.
As a young advocate in Johannesburg he shared chambers with Joe Slovo, then a leading light in the Communist Party before it was banned.Leon defended Nelson Mandela in some of the earliest public order charges brought against him, which Mandela never forgot.
He became the youngest Queen's Counsel in the British Commonwealth at the age of 33, a high court judge at 41 and chancellor of the University of Natal before the age of 60.
In 1985 he was made deputy judge president of Natal. He took early retirement in 1987 when he was 62, partly for health reasons and also because he was peeved at being overlooked for judge president, a position he felt his seniority entitled him to expect. It was believed that his liberal record as a judge counted against him, as well as the fact that he was Jewish.
In 1991 he was made chairman of the indemnity committee but resigned in 1993 when the committee's decision to deny indemnity to Magoo's bar bomber Robert McBride was overturned as part of a deal between the Nats and ANC.
As president, Mandela appointed Leon to head three judicial commissions of inquiry.
He served as an appeal court judge in Lesotho and Swaziland until the age of 80.
He is survived by his sons, Peter and Tony, and two stepchildren from his second marriage.

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