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June 12, 1964: Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment

OFF via AFP - Getty Images, file

Eight men, among them anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial leave the Palace of Justice in Pretoria with their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car.

Radu Sigheti / Reuters, file

A copy of a combo picture showing the accused in the Rivonia trial, on display at the Maybuye Center in Cape Town. From left to right on the top row are Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Gowan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba and on the bottom row are Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg.

On June 12, 1964, a judge sentenced Nelson Mandela to life in prison. Exactly 49 years later, Mandela's grandson thanked people for their support Wednesday in the family's first statement since the former South African president was hospitalized on Saturday.

Back in 1964, Mandela was one of eight men accused of conspiracy and sabotage in the so-called Rivonia Trial, named after a suburb of Johannesburg where African National Congress leaders had hidden out in a farmhouse.

In an electrifying speech from the dock at the beginning of the defense case, Mandela addressed the court [click for audio]:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live, and to see realized. But my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Passing sentence, Justice de Wet compared the convicted men's crime to high treason but said that after careful consideration he had decided not to impose "the supreme penalty."

Radu Sigheti / Reuters, file

A picture taken from a xerox in the National Archives of South Africa shows photos by James Soullier in South Africa's Sunday Express newspaper reporting on the Rivonia trial that resulted in the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.

AP, file

Police join hands to hold back demonstrators outside court in Pretoria on June 12, 1964 after eight of the accused in the Rivonia trial were sentenced to life imprisonment.

AP, file

Outside the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, Winnie Mandela (right) waits for a glimpse of her husband, Nelson Mandela , as he and seven other men are carried off to jail in Black Marias on June 12, 1964. Mrs. Mandela waited in vain as the police van took another route and did not pass her.

Outside court, an anxious crowd had gathered. Aggrey Klaaste of South Africa's Post newspaper described the scene in his report the next day:

"Mrs. Winnie Mandela stepped out of the Palace of Justice with her head held high. A whisper ran through the crowd: “LIFE”. There was a sudden hush, an air of bewilderment — and then an almost audible sigh of relief."

Mandela and six of the other convicted men were transferred to a prison on Robben Island. It would be more than 25 years before he gained his freedom and was able to begin the task of building the democratic and free society he had dreamed of.

Radu Sigheti / Reuters, file

A picture taken from a xerox in the National Archives of South Africa shows a page from South Africa's Post newspaper a day after the life sentence was handed out to Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia accused.

Radu Sigheti / Reuters, file

A picture taken from a xerox in the National Archives of South Africa shows the front page of South Africa's Sunday Express newspaper from June 14, 1964, reporting that seven of the convicted men had been flown to Robben Island.

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View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.