Justice comes too late for unlucky baboon

2014-04-06 14:00

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) has come to the aid of a Gauteng couple who have been forced to fight a seven-year legal battle to clear their names of criminal charges related to a baboon.

“This is a case about a baboon. By all accounts, until it apparently met an untimely end, the baboon behaved impeccably,” the court said light-heartedly in its judgment before embarking on a scathing indictment of the criminal justice system.

In a judgment penned by Judge Malcolm Wallis, the SCA last week entirely scrapped the convictions of Colin and Theony Macrae, who had been found guilty of obstruction of justice and theft of an unnamed baboon after refusing to hand over the animal they had been caring for on behalf of nature conservation officials.

“The irony of the situation?...?is that after the baboon was handed to these [conservation] officials at the end of the [Macrae] trial, it was placed in a shelter where it appears to have burned to death,” the court said.

The “saga”, as Wallis describes it, started in October 2006, when the Macraes were given possession of the baboon by nature conservation officials after it was seized from a person who did not have a licence to keep it.

But soon afterwards, Cornia Hugo, the assistant director of investigations at the Gauteng Directorate of Nature Conservation, ordered officials to return to the couple’s game lodge to retrieve the animal, claiming “treasury regulations” stipulated it had to be kept at a zoo.

When they refused to hand over the baboon – which had gone for a walk at the time of the officials’ visit – police officers arrested the couple.

Wallis ruled the Macraes, who were forced to defend themselves in a magistrates’ court, had not received a fair trial.

A subsequent appeal heard by high court judges George Webster and Nomonde Mngqibisa-Thusi failed to remedy the unfair trial.

Wallis criticised what he called a “classic instance of bureaucratic overreach” by Hugo, nature conservation officials and the police, who “resorted to force and wound up arresting two perfectly peaceable citizens for no good reason”.

He added: “The image is redolent of an American police drama rather than a dispute over?...?the care and custody of a baboon.”

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