JOHANNESBURG: South Africa has put the release of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius on hold, saying a decision to free him on Friday after serving only 10 months in prison for killing his girlfriend had been premature.
Justice Minister Michael Masutha said in a surprise statement Wednesday that the June decision to allow Pistorius to serve out the remainder of his five-year sentence under house arrest had “no legal basis” and was suspended pending a parole board review.
The 28-year-old athlete was convicted in October of culpable homicide — a charge equivalent to manslaughter — over the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013, but prosecutors have appealed, seeking a murder conviction instead.
Wednesday’s announcement comes on the very day Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, would have celebrated her 32nd birthday.
“It is apparent… that the decision to release him on 21 August 2015 was made prematurely on 5 June 2015, when the offender was not eligible to be considered at all,” Masutha said in a statement.
“The earlier decision of the CSPB (the Correctional Supervision and Parole Board) to place the offender under correctional supervision is suspended until the Parole Review Board has decided on the matter,” the statement said.
Pistorius will have served a sixth of his five-year sentence by Friday, making him eligible for early release under South African law.
But the justice minister said the early release decision should not have been taken before he had actually served out that 10-month period.
The minister suggested to local radio 702 that the parole board may have “misinterpreted the law and been in haste in taking a decision prematurely.”
It was not immediately clear when the review board would meet and justice ministry officials remained tight-lipped on the matter.
“It will depend on how and when the review board is going to hear the matter,” ministry spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga told ENCA news channel, refusing to speculate about the possible date of the athlete’s release.
Pistorius’s family said they were mulling their options.
“We accept the decision made by the minister of justice, and are considering our options,” said Pistorius family spokesman Anneliese Burgess told Agence France-Presse.
But puzzled legal experts speculated that Pistorius’s lawyers may go to court as early as Thursday to have the minister’s decision set aside.
“What we have here may be a case of political interference,” said Johannesburg-based lawyer Martin Hood.
Even if Pistorius launches an urgent court bid, he could remain behind bars for several days to come as the parole review board has 14 to reconsider his case, according to a Pretoria criminal attorney, Llewellyn Curlewis.
Steenkamp’s parents June and Barry had been outraged by the idea of Pistorius getting out of jail after just 10 months.
During his high-profile and often emotional trial, Pistorius did not dispute that he shot Steenkamp four times through a locked toilet door in his upmarket Pretoria home in the early hours of February 14, 2013.
But he says he mistook her for an intruder.
Prosecutors however insist that he deliberately killed her after an argument, and this week appealed the culpable homicide verdict.
If they win their case, which is to be heard in November, Pistorius could face at least 15 years in jail for murder.
The athlete — nicknamed the “Blade Runner” for the prosthetic legs he wears on the track — won international fame after racing against able-bodied competitors in the 2012 London Olympics.
Once a poster boy for sport, Pistorius — whose legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old — has lost his lucrative contracts and has no immediate hope of salvaging his athletic career whatever the outcome of the appeal.
His trial had exposed his darker side, offering glimpses of a dangerously volatile man with a penchant for guns, beautiful women and fast cars.
The initial parole board decision would have meant Pistorius serving the rest of his under house arrest.
While there had been speculation he would spend this time at the home of his wealthy uncle Arnold — a mansion in a posh Pretoria suburb -— there was a possibility the athlete would have asked to stay in a different location, away from the glare of the media.
Correctional services head Zach Modise said Pistorius, who is behind bars in Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru II prison, initially wrestled with his sentence.
“At the beginning he could not understand that you get locked up in a cell,” Modise told South Africa’s Sunday Times earlier this month.
“I think he’s getting to understand you have to control your anger and temper,” said Modise. “I hope when he gets released on probation he will be able to conduct himself well.”