Two army officers cleared

2008-10-17 00:00

The former commanding officer of the SANDF’s 121 Battalion in Mtubatuba, Lieutenant-Colonel Louis "Tobie" van Eeden, and the base’s ex-legal officer, then Major Ferdinand Labuschagne, were cleared yesterday of a criminal charge after a five-year legal battle.

Van Eeden, who is still a member of the SANDF, but no longer officer commanding 121 Battalion, said yesterday that he is "glad it is all finished at last".

Labuschagne has resigned from the army and is an attorney in northern KZN. Weekend Witness was unable to contact him.

Pietermaritzburg High Court judges of appeal Nic van der Reyden and Piet Koen set aside the conviction of the two men on a charge of defeating the ends of justice imposed by a regional magistrate, L. Naidoo, at Esikhawini.

On November 25, 2004, Naidoo sentenced each of them to pay a fine of R4 000 (or two years’ imprisonment) plus a further five years’ imprisonment, wholly suspended for five years.

The appeal judges said in a reserved judgment that the magistrate through his "cross-examination" of defence witnesses revealed a "lack of objectivity and impartiality and bias against the defence witnesses".

The case arose from allegations that the accused interfered with a state witness, Rifleman V. Sithole, and caused him to retract a statement implicating two colleagues — Major Willem Bronkhorst and Captain Andre Goosen — for conspiracy to murder the battalion’s second in command, Major July Manekwane.

According to press reports at the time, the murder plot was suspected to be connected to an investigation into R2,2 million worth of ammunition that vanished from the base.

Advocate Kobus Booyens, SC, who acted for Bronkhorst and Goosen at their trial, said both were acquitted of the conspiracy to murder charge. However, Van Eeden and Labuschagne, who were tried separately, were not so lucky.

Judges Van der Reyden and Koen found that the magistrate who convicted them drew "numerous inferences" against them "with no acceptable basis".

The appeal court found that "having warned himself of the racial undertones of the case one would have expected him [the regional magistrate] to have kept an open mind as to which faction was responsible for the racial friction".

However, said the judges, his "judgment is interspersed with remarks that tend to favour the state witnesses and denigrate the defence witnesses".

Judge Van der Reyden said it was clear that the regional magistrate closed his mind to the probability that Sithole falsely implicated Bronkhorst and Goosen.

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