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Last updated: February 22, 2013 5:36 pm
After a week of high drama, Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic and Paralympic star charged with the murder of his model girlfriend, was granted bail of R1m ($113,000) after a magistrate ruled that the double-amputee was not a flight risk or a threat to the public.
In a detailed ruling that lasted two hours, Desmond Nair, the magistrate, said the 26-year-old sprinter, nicknamed the “Blade Runner” because of the distinct carbon fibre blades he runs on, had not shown a propensity to commit violence and there was no evidence that he would interfere with witnesses.
The ruling ends four days of dramatic scenes at Pretoria magistrate’s court and brings to a close the first chapter of a case that has triggered disbelief and sent shockwaves across the globe, drawing attention to South Africa’s police and justice system as well as its high crime rate and gun culture.
Fresh drama and emotion have sprung up each day since the bail hearing began on Tuesday, the silence of Mr Pistorius in the dock sporadically punctuated by outbursts of sobbing with his head often bowed or cradled in his hands.
The prosecution argued that it was a case of premeditated murder, saying the athlete fired four shots through a locked toilet door at his house in an upscale gated compound in Pretoria in the early hours of Valentine’s day. Three hit Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law graduate.
The defence read out an affidavit from Mr Pistorius which said he was “absolutely mortified by the events” and had “no intention to kill my girlfriend”.
Under his version of events, he woke up in the early hours, thought he heard an intruder in his house, grabbed his 9mm pistol and fired through the toilet door. It was only when he returned to the bedroom, that he realised Steenkamp was not in the bed. She later died in his arms, he said.
On Wednesday, the testimony of Hilton Botha, a police warrant officer credited with 24-years experience on the force, turned into a calamity for the prosecution as he acknowledged that Mr Pistorius’s version of events was consistent with the evidence.
It also emerged that the detective was himself facing charges of attempted murder. The charges related to an incident in 2011 when Mr Botha and two other police officers allegedly shot at a minibus. By the close on Thursday, Mr Botha had been replaced.
With South Africa under a global spotlight it was an embarrassing saga for a police force that is often criticised for unprofessionalism, corruption and poor training. The police said it had only become aware this week that the charges against Mr Botha – which had been provisionally withdrawn – had been reinstated.
Yet the controversy is likely to rumble on. During the bail ruling, Mr Nair singled out the detective’s testimony saying he made several “errors” and “concessions” during cross-examination – from dealing with Mr Pistorius’s and Steenkamp’s cell phones to the details related to witnesses whom the prosecution alleged heard shouting and gunfire.
Mr Nair added that while Mr Botha’s evidence might have been tarnished under cross-examination, it did not necessarily mean the state’s case was not strong, saying it was “practically impossible” for the prosecution to have all the pieces of the puzzle in a week.
Pierre De Vos, a constitutional expert at the University of Cape Town, said the Botha controversy was a “sideshow”.
“We have certain challenges with the quality of the police and the technical expertise and so on,” he said. But “ultimately it’s not going to affect whether Mr Pistorius is going to be found guilty or not or gets a fair trial or not”.
Outside the court every day, the women’s league of the governing African National Congress has led small demonstrations to highlight violence against women. “For now we will abide by the rules of law in this country but honestly we are saddened because women are being killed in this country,” Jacqui Mofokeng, ANC Women's league spokeswoman, told Reuters after the ruling.
The irony, however, is that the attention the Pistorius case has garnered has relegated the gang rape and murder of Anene Booysen, a teenager, down the news agenda.
While Mr Pistorius was granted his wish of bail, Mr Nair raised questions about his versions of events, including why he did not check the whereabouts of Steenkamp when he got out of bed and why he did not verify who was in the toilet before firing.
Those questions will be asked again when the actual trial begins in June. But for now Mr Pistorius, will be spending his first night outside of prison for more than a week.
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