An appeals court today overturned the conviction of one of the last of South Africa's apartheid-era leaders, former president Pieter W. Botha, who had been found in contempt of court for refusing to testify about human rights abuses committed while he was in office.

A court had cited Botha last August for ignoring a subpoena from the nation's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission to appear before the panel. But the defiant, 83-year-old Botha appealed the verdict, saying that the commission subpoenaed him after the law creating the panel had expired. An appeals court in Cape Town agreed and set aside his sentence, which could have been a $1,600 fine or a year in jail.

The truth commission was established in 1995 after South Africa's first all-races democratic election. Its purpose is to help close the rift between black and white South Africans by offering amnesty to people who reveal fully the extent of any politically motivated violence they participated in during nearly a half-century of white-minority rule and the racial separation it imposed.

But the law that created the commission had expired when the panel subpoenaed Botha, and President Nelson Mandela did not sign Parliament's measure extending the law until several days later. That, the appeals court ruled today, meant the commission technically had no authority to require anyone to appear before them during that interim period.

"The court is mindful of the fact that there will be many who may consider it unjust" to uphold Botha's appeal, one of the three appeals judges, Selwyn Selikowitz, wrote in his ruling. But "this court is duty bound to uphold and protect the constitution and administer justice to all persons alike without fear, favor or prejudice."

State Prosecutor Bruce Morrison, arguing on behalf of the truth commission, said Botha's refusal to appear was an effort to derail the panel. "As a result of his stubbornness in not wanting to appear, the truth commission was stultified in its attempt to bring about reconciliation," Morrison said.

Before he resigned in 1989 in favor of his more moderate National Party colleague, Frederik W. de Klerk, Botha ruled South Africa with a strong commitment to the segregationist government, and he has repeatedly referred to the commission's activities as a witch hunt.

The commission summoned him after former state security officers testified that they had tortured, bombed and murdered black activists and implicated Botha and others -- including de Klerk -- in the campaign of violence. Botha, de Klerk and other former cabinet members have denied those allegations, characterizing the violence as acts of rogue police officers who took it upon themselves to stamp out opposition to apartheid.

CAPTION: Former President Botha has called the truth panel "a witch hunt."