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Bizos was the son of Antonios (known to his family and friends as "Antoni") Bizos, the mayor of the small village of Vasilitsi, south of Koroni and Kalamata on the Messinian peninsula of the Peloponese, Greece. In May 1941 at the age of thirteen, George Bizos and his father helped seven New Zealand soldiers (Don Gladding, Mick Karup, Peter Martin, John Lewis and three others) who were hiding in the hills to escape Nazi-occupied Greece to Crete. He says the escape did not go well and he was adrift for three days until he managed to attract the attention of crew on the British destroyer, HMS Kimberley, which was on its way to the Battle of Crete. After the battle HMS Kimberley dropped him off at Alexandria, Egypt.
As a refugee he was sent to South Africa and landed in Durban. From there he went by train to Johannesburg. He disembarked at the Braamfontein railway station because it was feared that the Ossewabrandwag would have a demonstration at the central station. The Ossewabrandwag blamed Jan Smuts for bringing the vuilgoed (rubbish) of Europe to South Africa. The local Greek community helped integrate him into society. Bizos did not immediately go to school because he could not speak English or Afrikaans but by 1948—the year that the National Party was voted into power—Bizos had managed to gain entry into the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was here that he says he first became politically active.
At the Rivonia Trial in 1963–64 he was part of the team that defended Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu. The defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, but spared the death penalty. Although it is sometimes said that he claims to have drafted Mandela's famous speech spoken at the trial, he says that his main contribution was to advise the use of the words "if needs be" before Mandela said that he was prepared to die. Bizos believes that this may have contributed to the avoidance of the death penalty by having Mandela not appear to seek martyrdom. This trial heralded the arrival of a group of tough human rights lawyers – Joel Joffe, Harry Schwarz, Arthur Chaskalson and Harold Hanson.
Bizos was counsel at various inquests into the deaths people in detention.
He has been a senior member of the Johannesburg Bar since 1978. He is a member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights, which he helped found in 1979. He is Senior Counsel at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg in the Constitutional Litigation Unit. He was a judge on Botswana's Court of Appeal from 1985 to 1993.
In 1990 he became a member of the African National Congress' (ANC) Legal and Constitutional Committee, and at Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) he served as advisor to the negotiating teams and participated in drawing up the Interim Constitution. He was involved in the drafting of legislation, and particularly the Truth and Reconciliation Bill and amendments to the Criminal Procedures Act, to bring it into line with Chapter 3 of the constitution, guaranteeing fundamental human rights to all citizens of South Africa.
In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, he was the leader of the team that opposed applications for amnesty on behalf of the Biko, Hani, Goniwe, Calata, Mkonto, Mhlauli, Slovo and Schoon families. He was appointed by then President Mandela to the Judicial Services Commission which, in terms of the constitution, recommends candidates for appointment as judges and proposes reforms to the judicial system to erase its apartheid past. Bizos was the leader of the team for the South African Government to argue that the death penalty was unconstitutional, and counsel for the National Assembly in the Certification of the Constitution by the Constitutional Court.
List of well-known people he represented
Bizos represented the following people, among others:
- Ahmed Timol's family, regarding his death in detention in 1971
- Chris Hani's family
- Govan Mbeki in the Rivonia Trial in 1963–64
- Mac Maharaj in the Little Rivonia Trial
- Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change of Zimbabwe regarding a charge of planning a coup d'état by conspiring to assassinate President Robert Mugabe before the 2002 general elections
- Neil Aggett's family, regarding his death in detention in 1982
- Nelson Mandela, since the 1950s
- Patrick Lekota (known as "Terror") in the Delmas Treason Trial, 1985–89
- Popo Molefe in the Delmas Treason Trial, 1985–89
- Rob Adam in a trial for involvement in ANC activities, 1982
- Steve Biko's family, regarding his death in detention in 1977
- Trevor Huddleston of Sophiatown, 1950s
- Walter Sisulu in the Rivonia Trial in 1963–64
- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, representing her on more than 20 occasions.
In the 1970s Bizos helped start a Greek school, called SAHETI. It embraced Hellenism, yet was non-exclusionist, even during the heart of apartheid. It was here that people like Chris Hani's children were educated.
Honors and awards
- 10 June 1999 he received the Order for Meritorious Service Class II medal from then President Mandela.
- 5 April 2001 he was awarded the 2001 International Trial Lawyer Prize of the Year by the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.
- The International Bar Association (IBA) named Bizos the winner of the 2004 Bernard Simons Memorial Award
Bizos is the author of No One to Blame – In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa published in 1998.
His autobiography Odyssey to Freedom was published in early 2007 by Random House, and runs to more than 600 pages.
Bizos is married to Arethe, known as "Rita", and has three sons, two of them surgeons and the other an engineer. He has seven grandchildren.
- "Mandela Fades Amid Battles Over Who Will Claim Legacy". The New York Times. 15 May 2013. "Mr. Bizos, a prominent human rights lawyer"
- "Nelson Mandela's children turn on his lawyer George Bizos". The Telegraph. AFP. 10 April 2013. "...a renowned human rights lawyer who defended the anti-apartheid icon during his 1960s trial for treason."
- "Nelson Mandela court case delayed after Ayob withdraws". BBC. 29 July 2013. "...prominent human rights lawyer George Bizos"
- "Nelson Mandela family feud deepens as Mandla hits back". BBC. 4 July 2013. "...respected human rights lawyer George Bizos"
- "An interview with George Bizos". The Economist. 21 July 2013. "...the now 85-year-old human-rights lawyer"
- Austin Sarat, Stuart Scheingold, ed. (2005). The Worlds Cause Lawyers Make: Structure and Agency in Legal Practice. Stanford University Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-0804752299. "...leading human rights lawyer George Bizos"
- Pal Ahluwalia, Stephen Atkinson, Peter Bishop, Pam Christie, Robert Hattam, Julie Matthews, ed. (2012). Reconciliation and Pedagogy. Routledge. p. 191. ISBN 978-0415687218. "George Bizos, a pre-eminent human rights lawyer who was part of the defence team in the Rivonia treason trial"
- "Media Challenge: Who and Where Are the Seven?". 22 October 2004.
- "Birthday tea with Bizos", 2008, Mail & Guardian
- Business Day – News Worth Knowing
- SABCnews.com – south_africa/general
- Poor Ismail Ayob : Mail & Guardian Online
- Friday Khutbar – Ummah.com – Muslim Forum
- Cape Times, 2 June 1982.
- Saheti school website
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