(CNN) — Two white men have been convicted of attempted murder after they forced a black South African farmworker into a coffin, which they then threatened to set alight.
A video of the incident went viral last year under the hashtag #coffinassault, igniting a discussion about racism in South Africa, and led to victim Victor Mlotshwa coming forward to police.
The two accused, Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Jackson, had argued that they only intended to scare Mlotshwa, claiming he had threatened their families and committed theft.
But Judge Segopotje Sheila Mphahlele found both men guilty on counts of kidnapping, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, intimidation and attempted murder. Jackson was also convicted of one count of obstructing the administration of justice.
The two men were also found guilty of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm against a second complainant, Delton Sithole.
Oosthuizen was cleared of one count of unlawful possession of a firearm.
Before announcing her verdicts at Middelburg Magistrates’ Court, Mphahlele recounted testimony given by several witnesses and the accused.
Mphahlele said Mlotshwa had testified that he was hitchhiking on a road when he was pursued by the men and forced to get into one of their vehicles. When he refused to cooperate, he was assaulted, Mlotshwa said.
The men drove him to a spot where they ordered him to climb into a coffin in a ditch. He was warned that if he tried to run away, they would shoot him.
Mlotshwa said he was beaten when he tried to resist climbing into the coffin, so eventually cooperated. He then heard one of the accused say they must pour petrol into the coffin. At that stage he was in severe pain, shivering and pleading with accused to spare his life.
He thought they were going to kill him, he said. He became very scared when he noticed the men had petrol and when Oosthuizen asked him how he wanted to die.
He eventually realized that no-one was forcing him back into the coffin, scrambled out and ran away as fast as he could. He said he suffered injuries to his face, shoulder, back, arm and leg but did not seek medical attention.
Defendants deny wrongdoing
Recounting the defendants’ testimony, the judge said Oosthuizen claimed that after they stopped him, Mlotshwa had been arrogant and was threatening to damage their crops and kill their wives and children. He had been carrying a black bag, which Jackson said contained copper cables rolled into small bundles.
Oosthuizen testified that they never intended to kill Mlotshwa, and only wanted to scare him off and “deter him from carrying out his earlier threats,” the judge recounted.
He and Jackson each recorded video of part of the incident on their phones.
Oosthuizen claimed they told Mlotshwa to get out of the coffin at the end of the incident and that Mlotshwa was able to walk free. He said Mlotshwa had asked for a lift, which they gave him.
The testimony of Theo Jackson, as recounted by the judge, supported that of Oosthuizen.
The video was recorded so that Mlotshwa could not later accuse them of assaulting him and to show that he admitted stealing the cable, Jackson said. The whole incident took 10 to 15 minutes and Mlotshwa was in the coffin no longer than 5 minutes, he said.
In October, his employer instructed him to get rid of the coffin because they would get in trouble for it, so he burned it, Jackson said.
Jackson did not consider their actions to be wrong. He said his wife had ordered him to delete the video from his cellphone because she didn’t want their children to see it.