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 (100 miles) east of Johannesburg.
They 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, 29, was sentenced to a 16-year term with five years suspended, while Jackson, 30, was jailed for 19 years, and with five also suspended.
“The most appalling act of the accused was to put the complainant in a coffin against his will,” said Mphahlele.
“Whilst in the coffin they threatened to set it alight. They asked him how he wanted to die — quickly or slowly.”
The judge said it was not the first time that the men had forced someone into a coffin against their will, saying their behaviour “raised and fuelled racial tension” in South Africa.
‘Lack of remorse’
The judge ruled that the convicted men could not appeal the sentence following a bid by their legal team.
A lawyer for the men, Wayne Gibbs, called the jail terms “shockingly inappropriate,” arguing that they were a result of intense media attention and public pressure.
Two clips of footage taken on their mobile phones showed the assailants shoving Mlotshwa down into the wooden coffin and pressing the lid closed with their boots as he begged for mercy.
When the first phone footage emerged several months ago, it triggered national outrage and led to the arrest of the two men.
“Please don’t kill me,” Mlotshwa begged the men while in the coffin, the footage showed.
“Why shouldn’t we, when you are killing our farm?” one of the convicted men replied.
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,” said Mphahlele.
Mlotshwa was in court to hear the sentences against the two men, who had alleged that he had threatened to kill their families and burn farm crops before being forced into the coffin.
He said he was simply 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.
On the phone footage, which was shown in court during the trial, one of the men said “Come, come. We want to throw the petrol on”.
They are also seen threatening to put a snake in the coffin.
Mlotshwa, who sat in court directly behind the families of the convicted men, smiled following the sentencing.
Members of rival political parties — including ruling African National Congress — celebrated inside the courtroom and outside, where some activists held up a cardboard coffin to protest against the crime.
Others brandished placards emblazoned with slogans calling for lengthy sentences for the accused and for better treatment of labourers.
South Africa is beset by deep-rooted racial inequality 23 years after the end of white-minority rule and racist incidents regularly erupt on social media.