White South African farmers jailed for forcing black man into coffin

Judge hands down sentences of 16 years and 19 years over "dehumanising and disgusting" actions

Farmers Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Martins react after being sentenced for kidnap, assault and attempted murder, in connection with forcing a man into a coffin, in Middelburg, South Africa, October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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A South African judge on Friday handed down jail terms of 19 and 16 years to two white farmers who filmed themselves forcing a black man into a coffin and threatening to burn him alive.

Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Martins Jackson, who both shifted nervously in the dock, laid their heads on the bench after their sentencing while female family members wept in the public gallery.

"The conduct of the accused was most dehumanising and disgusting," said judge Segopotje Mphahlele, handing down sentence in the high court sitting in Middelburg, 165 kilometres east of Johannesburg.

The men had pleaded not guilty over the incident last year in the eastern province of Mpumalanga, saying they only intended to scare Victor Mlotshwa whom they accused of stealing copper cables from their farm.

They were convicted on August 25 of attempted murder as well as kidnap, intimidation and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

Oosthuizen was sentenced to a 16-year term with five years suspended, while Jackson was jailed for 19 years with five years suspended.

"The most appalling act of the accused was to put the complainant in a coffin against his will," the judge said.

"Whilst in the coffin they threatened to set it alight. They asked him how he wanted to die - quickly or slowly.

"The conduct of the accused ... goes against the spirit of the constitution."

Judge Mphahlele added that it was not the first time the men had forced someone into a coffin against their will. He said their behaviour "raised and fuelled racial tension" in South Africa, where the majority black population was discriminated against under white-minority apartheid rule that ended in 1994.

Two clips of footage taken on the farmers' mobile phones showed the assailants shoving Mr Mlotshwa into the wooden coffin and pressing the lid closed with their boots as he begged for mercy.

"Please don't kill me," Mr Mlotshwa begs the men while in the coffin.

"Why shouldn't we, when you are killing our farm?" one of the men replies.

When the first phone footage emerged several months ago, it triggered national outrage and led to the arrest of the two men.

Throughout the case, the men denied that their actions had caused the victim to fear for his life.

"The evidence of the accused and the conduct of the accused during their trial clearly displays a lack of remorse," the judge said.

Mr Mlotshwa was in court to hear the sentences against the two men, who alleged that he had threatened to kill their families and burn their crops before being forced into the coffin. Sitting directly behind the families of the convicted men, he smiled following the sentencing.

On the phone footage, which was shown in court during the trial, one of the men says, "Come, come. We want to throw the petrol on."

They are also seen threatening to put a snake in the coffin.

Supporters of the ruling African National Congress party, which has supported Mr Mlotshwa during the case, celebrated in the courtroom after the sentences were handed down.

Mr Mlotshwa has said he was walking to the town of Middelburg to buy provisions for his mother and had decided to use a short cut when the two men spotted him.