An apartheid-era policeman accused of killing activist Ahmed Timol 47 years ago argued in court on Monday that the alleged crimes happened too long ago for him to stand trial.

Joao Rodrigues, 80, who was in the police’s infamous security branch, is accused of murdering the anti-apartheid campaigner in detention in 1971 but is now seeking to suspend the prosecution.

The Timol trial is seen as a test case for the families of other apartheid victims whose killers have not been brought to justice since 1994.

Rodrigues briefly appeared in the Johannesburg high court on Monday where judge Ramarumo Monama, who did not consider the application lodged by Rodrigues’s legal team, set the trial date for January 28.

Rodrigues claimed in court documents he is “seriously prejudiced by the fact that these proceedings are now instituted against me some 47 years later”. In the application to suspend his prosecution, Rodrigues reiterated he only participated “in the cover-up to conceal the crime of murder as an accessory after the fact”. His application will be heard before the trial date, but prosecutors have vowed to oppose it.

“It does not matter how far back the incident happened. Age and the duration argument cannot hold water,” National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane said.

Timol’s nephew Imtiaz Cajee welcomed the court’s decision to finally set a trial date. “We have reached a watershed moment,” he told reporters, adding that the judge’s remark that “justice delayed is justice denied sums up the feelings of not just the Timol family but many other victims’ families throughout the country”.

The decision to charge Rodrigues nearly five decades after Timol fell to his death from the 10th floor of Johannesburg’s police headquarters followed a review of the inquest that initially ruled his death a suicide.

Timol was arrested in Johannesburg in October 1971 and died five days later. Officers said at the time he took his own life — a verdict that was endorsed by an inquest in 1972 but finally overturned by a court in October 2017 after a decades-long campaign by his family.

Rodrigues also faces a charge of perjury and is on bail of R2,000.