PRETORIA, South Africa – Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter who won world acclaim by competing in last summer’s Olympics, broke into loud sobs on Friday after prosecutors announced a charge of premeditated murder against him in the shooting death of his model girlfriend.
The 26-year-old athlete held his head and wept upon learning of the charge, the most serious under South African law, which carries a mandatory life sentence. He did not speak or enter a plea, but a statement released later by his family and agent said Pistorius disputed the murder charge “in the strongest terms.”
The track star’s arrest in the Valentine’s Day killing of 29-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp shocked South Africa, where Pistorius was a national hero dubbed the Blade Runner for his high-tech prosthetics and revered for overcoming his disability to compete in the London Games.
At Friday’s court hearing, Pistorius wept uncontrollably, drawing the attention of Chief Magistrate Desmond Nasir, who at one point told him simply, “Take it easy.”
Pistorius’ brother, Carl, and his father, Henke, reached out to touch his shoulder to comfort him as he sat slumped and grim-faced in the dock.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said he would pursue a charge of premeditated murder against Pistorius in the slaying of Steenkamp, a leggy blonde model with a law degree who had spoken out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women.
She was discovered in a pool of blood before dawn Thursday by police called to Pistorius’ upscale home in a gated community in the South African capital of Pretoria. Authorities said she had been shot four times, and a 9 mm pistol was recovered at the home.
Throngs of reporters, photographers and videographers filled the brick-walled Courtroom C in Pretoria Magistrate’s Court, where Pistorius appeared. Nasir’s first ruling focused on the press as he dismissed requests from the state broadcaster and a private television station to air the hearing live.
Nasir also ordered that no photographs be taken while court was in session. That left dozens of photographers kneeling less than a yard from the sobbing Pistorius to simply stare at a man many had photographed previously sprinting on his famous carbon-fiber blades.
Police said investigators had conducted an autopsy on Steenkamp’s body but the results would not be released.
Pistorius’ family left quickly after the hearing, without speaking to journalists. In a statement later Friday, the family and his London-based management agency questioned the criminal charge the athlete faces.
“The alleged murder is disputed in the strongest terms,” the statement said, without elaborating. It added that Pistorius wanted to “send his deepest sympathies to the family of Reeva.”
“He would also like to express his thanks through us today for all the messages of support he has received — but as stated our thoughts and prayers today should be for Reeva and her family — regardless of the circumstances of this terrible, terrible tragedy,” the statement read.
Since news of the slaying, shock waves have rippled across South Africa, a nation of 50 million where nearly 50 people are killed each day, one of the world’s highest murder rates. U.N. statistics say the nation has the second highest rate of shooting deaths in the world, behind only Colombia.
Many wore black Friday to demonstrate against the high levels of violence against women in the country.
Others focused their attention on Pistorius and his fascination with fast cars, cage fighting and firearms.
Those who knew Pistorius, including a former girlfriend, weighed in on social media.
Trish Taylor, mother of Pistorius’ ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, wrote on Facebook: “I’m so glad Sammy is safe and out of the clutches of that man.”
But another ex-girlfriend, Jenna Edkins, took to Twitter to defend him.
“All I am saying is let him speak, let his side be heard without jumping to conclusions,” she tweeted, offering “love and support” to the Pistorius family.
“I have dated Oscar on and off for 5 YEARS, NOT ONCE has he EVER lifted a finger to me or made me fear for my life.”
At the defence request, the chief magistrate delayed a bail hearing until Tuesday for Pistorius, who was ordered held in a police holding cell, rather than transferred to prison.
In seeking a premeditated murder charge against Pistorius, prosecutors appear to be claiming they have evidence the athlete planned the killing ahead of time, said William Booth, a prominent Cape Town defence lawyer.
Such a serious charge makes it more difficult for Pistorius to successfully apply for bail, Booth said, though it could also be a challenge to get a conviction.
“It’s quite difficult to prove that in a situation where there isn’t a witness,” the defence lawyer said. “If I just plan it in my mind and I arrive at somebody’s house and there’s no witnesses and I shoot the person, it’s really tough for the prosecution to show that planning.”
Pistorius made history at the London Olympics last year when he became the first double-amputee track athlete to compete at any games. He didn’t win a medal but did make the semifinals of the 400 metres and the final of the 4X400 relay, propelling the world’s best-known Paralympian to the level of an international track star and one of the world’s best-known sportsmen.
AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.