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Pistorius free on bail pending murder trial

Saturday, February 23, 2013    

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PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — In an agonisingly slow announcement, a magistrate allowed Oscar Pistorius to go free on bail yesterday, nine days after the Paralympian was arrested in the Valentine's Day killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Pistorius's family members and supporters shouted "Yes!" when Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair made his decision after a more than one hour and 45 minute explanation of his ruling to a packed courtroom.

Radio stations and a TV news network in South Africa broadcast the audio of the decision live, and even international channels like the BBC and CNN went live with it, underscoring the huge global interest in the case.

Nair banned cameras from yesterday's dramatic bail hearing and complained about cameras constantly "flashing" in Pistorius's face the previous three days of hearings, saying the spectacle made the athlete look like "some kind of species the world has never seen before".

Nair set the bail at 1 million rand ($113,000), with $11,300 in cash up front and proof that the rest is available. The magistrate said Pistorius must hand over his passports and also turn in any other guns that he owns. Pistorius also cannot leave the district of Pretoria, South Africa's capital, without the permission of his probation officer, Nair said, nor can he take drugs or drink alcohol.

The double-amputee Olympian's next court appearance was set for June 4. He left the courthouse in a silver Land Rover, sitting in the rear, just over an hour after the magistrate imposed the bail conditions.

The magistrate ruled that Pistorius could not return to his upscale home in a gated community in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria, where the killing of Steenkamp took place.

Pistorius's uncle, Arnold Pistorius said: "We are relieved at the fact that Oscar got bail... but at the same time we are in mourning for the death of Reeva with her family. As a family, we know Oscar's version of what happened on that tragic night and we know that that is the truth and that will prevail in the coming court case."

Pistorius's senior defence lawyer, Barry Roux, told reporters the defence is satisfied with the bail.

Nair made the ruling after four days of arguments from prosecution and defence in Pistorius's bail hearing. During yesterday's long session in Pretoria Magistrate's Court, Pistorius alternately wept and appeared solemn and more composed, especially toward the end as Nair criticised police procedures in the case and as a judgement in Pistorius's favuor appeared imminent.

Nair said Pistorius's sworn statement, in which he gave his version of the events of the shooting during the predawn hours of February 14 in a sworn statement, had helped his application for bail.

"I come to the conclusion that the accused has made a case to be released on bail," Nair said.

Pistorius said in the sworn statement that he shot his girlfriend accidentally, believing she was an intruder in his house.

Prosecutors say he intended to kill Steenkamp and charged him with premeditated murder, saying the shooting followed a loud argument between the two.

Sharon Steenkamp, Reeva's cousin, had said earlier that the family wouldn't be watching the bail decision and hadn't been following the hearing in Pretoria.

"It doesn't make any difference to the fact that we are without Reeva," she told The Associated Press.

Despite the bail decision, prosecution spokesman Medupe Simasiku said: "We're still confident in our case," outside court.

Pistorius faced the sternest bail requirements in South Africa because of the seriousness of the charge, and his defense lawyers had to prove that he would not flee the country, would not interfere with witnesses or the case, and his release would not cause public unrest.

Nair questioned whether Pistorius would be a flight risk and be prepared to go "ducking and diving" around the world when he stood to lose a fortune in cash, cars, property and other assets. Nair also said that while it had been shown that Pistorius had aggressive tendencies, he did not have a prior record of offences for violent acts.

He criticised Hilton Botha, the previous lead investigator in the case, for not doing more to uncover evidence that the Olympian had violent tendencies.

"There is ample room and ample time to do that by looking at the background of the accused," he said.

But while Nair levelled harsh criticism at former lead investigator Botha for "errors" and "blunders", he said one man does not represent the state's case and that the state could not be expected to put all the pieces of its puzzle together in such a short time.

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