Former President P.W. Botha pleaded not guilty Monday to contempt charges that he snubbed South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Botha, 82, has ignored three subpoenas to appear before the commission, established in 1995 to probe apartheid-era human rights abuses. He sat impassively as his lawyer spoke on his behalf during the 20-minute hearing."The accused pleads not guilty," Lappe Laubscher told Judge Victor Lugaju. The hearing was held in a local court in George, a town 240 miles east of Cape Town, close to Botha's home.

Botha's lawyers said Truth Commission chairman Desmond Tutu agreed in November 1996 that Botha could avoid an appearance by supplying written answers to commission questions.

Laubscher said the Truth Commission had broken that deal by subpoenaing the former president.

Commission members say they need details beyond the more than 1,700 pages of written answers that Botha has provided.

After the plea, Lugaju postponed the case until April 14, when the trial will start.

Known as the "Big Crocodile" for his bullying and sometimes ruthless manner, Botha's appearance before Lugaju, who is black, symbolized change in South Africa since President Nelson Mandela took power four years ago.

Botha ruled the country for 11 years during the most violent period of the anti-apartheid struggle, before being ousted by F.W. de Klerk in 1989.

The Truth Commission wants Botha to appear and answer questions about the State Security Council he headed in the 1980s that planned the government crackdown on black liberation groups.

Botha says he has nothing to add to his written answers.

The Truth Commission has been criticized from all sides for alleged bias. Whites accuse it of carrying out a witch hunt against apartheid figures while blacks were angered that Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, underwent a nine-day hearing before the panel while Botha has never appeared.