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March 28, 2013

Pistorius allowed to leave South Africa with conditions

PRETORIA, South Africa —

Oscar Pistorius can leave South Africa to compete in international track meets, a judge ruled on Thursday as he upheld the Olympic athlete's appeal against some of his bail restrictions.

Pistorius' agent told The Associated Press that this year's world championships could be "on the radar."

Judge Bert Bam said Pistorius, who is charged with murder in the Valentine's Day shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, must travel under certain conditions. His passport will be held by a court while he is in South Africa, and he can only leave the country if he provides an itinerary of his travel plans at least a week before he is due to leave. Pistorius must also hand his travel documents back to the court within 24 hours of returning home.

The ruling in a North Gauteng High Court opens the way for the Paralympic champion, who is facing a life sentence if found guilty of murder, to run in international competitions again.

Pistorius' agent, Peet van Zyl, told the AP soon after the ruling that Pistorius could even run at the world championships in Moscow in August — if he wanted to and if he qualified.

"Based on this (judge's decision), and if he is up for it and qualifies, the world championships will definitely be on the radar," Van Zyl told the AP by telephone.

The judge's decision was "fair," Van Zyl said, but any return to competition would be up to Pistorius, who hasn't run competitively since September or trained for two months.

"He's going to be the one that determines running and training," the agent said. "It's his call. He's the one under all the pressure for the court case and grieving for Reeva."

Although Pistorius' lawyers said in the appeal hearing that he had no immediate plans to compete, he would likely need to return to track in the future to earn money, they said. Pistorius himself, a double amputee widely known as the Blade Runner for his prosthetic legs, did not attend the court session.

"He has no desire to compete now but it might change and it will change," defense lawyer Barry Roux told the judge in arguing for some of Pistorius' bail restrictions to be eased. Roux said Pistorius would not try and evade trial if he is allowed to travel internationally, and would eventually need to run again "to earn an income."

"He is not going to run away and hide. He is going nowhere," Roux told the judge in the brown-walled courtroom in the high court, where television cameras and photographers were allowed in to record the proceedings. "Why stop him from traveling under controlled circumstances?" Roux added.

Pistorius says he killed Steenkamp accidentally when he fired shots through a door in his bathroom in the pre-dawn hours, fearing there was an intruder in his house. Prosecutors say he shot the model and reality TV star intentionally after they argued, and they have charged him with premeditated murder.

Pistorius' last competitive race was his victory in the 400 meters final at the London Paralympics in September last year. He hasn't trained or "seen a track" for around nine weeks, agent Van Zyl said, but when he was ready they would consider both able-bodied and Paralympic events.

Van Zyl saw no reason why Pistorius shouldn't be allowed to run again while accused of murder and told The AP that he had been contacted by race promoters who wanted to see Pistorius return to competition.

"At the end of the day we'll have to see what governing bodies will say. It will be interesting to see," Van Zyl said. "If they don't allow him to run and he walks out (of court) a free man, there might be a problem."

In court on Thursday, the judge also ruled in favor of Pistorius on three other conditions. He no longer has to be regularly supervised by a probation official and a ruling that he wasn't allowed to consume alcohol and could be tested at any time for alcohol and "prohibited substances" was lifted. Bam also slammed one of the bail conditions imposed by another judge, saying that a condition that he would be in breach of his bail if he was accused of another crime against women was "fraud." It went against Pistorius' constitutional right to be innocent until proven guilty, and being accused of a crime should not count against him, Bam said.

The high court judge's rapid ruling came three hours after the hearing began.

Another two restrictions that Pistorius was not allowed to return to his house, where he shot Steenkamp dead on Feb. 14, and had to report regularly to a police station should be "disregarded," the judge said, as they weren't in Nair's written court order.

It meant Pistorius' legal team succeeded in all its appeals. Pistorius' lawyers smiled after the judge ruled in their favor.

The prosecution wouldn't comment on how the ruling affected its case, but said it believed Pistorius would comply with the new conditions.

"As the prosecution, we are not going to make any comment in as far as the judgment is concerned," National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Medupe Simasiku said. "Our focus is on the upcoming trial and we need to focus on that with all our minds.

"The investigation is going well and we believe that soon it will be completed. And when it is completed, that is when we'll know about the trial date," he said.

The athlete's lawyers had earlier argued that he was being treated as a flight risk by his bail restrictions even though a magistrate ruled last month that he was not when he released Pistorius on 1 million rand ($108,000) bail.

Defense lawyer Roux said Pistorius' original bail restrictions amounted to "house arrest." He also argued against a ruling that prevented him from speaking to residents near his home, saying he should be allowed to consult with them to prepare his defense.

Prosecutors had opposed the relaxing of Pistorius' bail restrictions and also said the appeal should have gone to the original magistrate's court that set bail for Pistorius, and not Pretoria's high court. Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair imposed the bail conditions on Feb. 22. Pistorius had been held in a police station until then. He hasn't been seen in public since and is believed to have been staying at an uncle's house.

Pistorius was not required to attend his appeal hearing and none of his family members was present at North Gauteng High Court in the heart of South Africa's capital city.

Pistorius' next court appearance is June 4, when the prosecution would aim to serve indictments, chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel told the court. Nel said there is a possibility that Pistorius' trial will begin by the end of the year.

Pistorius' bail appeal was being heard at the high court a day after the athlete's older brother, Carl Pistorius, went on trial for culpable homicide for the death of a woman motorcyclist in a 2008 road accident. Carl Pistorius pleaded not guilty Wednesday to the main charge of culpable homicide and not guilty to two alternative charges relating to driving recklessly and inconsiderately.

 

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