Escape from hell

2012-06-09 17:45

Jacqueline Pienaar had a message this week for her criminal colleagues in one of South Africa’s most ­audacious frauds. “I’ve been to hell and back. But these bastards learnt: don’t mess with me!”

This week marked 12 years from the morning in 2000 when the 16-year-old Afrikaans schoolgirl from the East Rand eyed an Asian man who came to look at a cottage in her parents’ back yard.

He introduced himself as Asad Abbas Naqvi, a businessman from Pakistan, who was later to become her husband. What she didn’t know was that he was a crime boss who had fled Pakistan because there was a ransom on his head.

A few months later, Pienaar married Naqvi, converted to Islam and adopted the name Fiza Naqvi.

Her marriage was a way to ­escape what she claimed was an abusive father, but it was also the beginning of her road to riches – and hell.

With her marriage to Naqvi, ­Pienaar (she no longer uses her Muslim name) became a member of one of the biggest fraud syndicates that has ever operated in South Africa.

The Naqvi gang “hijacked” the identities of major companies, including Sun Microsystems, using insiders at the companies registration office and diverted tax refunds due to these companies to their own accounts.

They stole more than R50 million and almost got away with R20 million more.

Pienaar, who is in witness protection but who spoke to City Press this week, is now a convicted fraudster for her role in the syndicate. She was in charge of their safe and describes how she once counted out R10 million in cash.

She’s also a widow.

On December 6 2008, Assad Naqvi was kidnapped and taken to Vosloorus, where he was tortured, shot and stuffed in the boot of his BMW, which was then alight.

Police believe he had double-crossed other members of the syndicate, which was awash in cash and expensive cars at their base in a Sandton home.

“I hated that life. It wasn’t normal and I wasn’t brought up like that. But I was trapped. They were watching me. And they were very dangerous,” she said.

When her husband was murdered, Pienaar was in Lahore, ­Pakistan, staying with the Naqvi family after the death of her husband’s father.

At the time, the SA Revenue Service (Sars) and then Scorpions (now the Hawks) were already on to them.

They had already identified Assad and his brother, Alizara, as the gang leaders, along with 12 other South Africans (including Cipro, Home Affairs and Sars officials) and Pakistanis – including Jacqueline.

Alizara returned to South Africa in early 2009. He was flagged at the airport, arrested and charged with fraud, money laundering and corruption. Other members were also arrested and assets seized.

The police issued a warrant for Jacqueline’s arrest. The family in Lahore was concerned that she might “turn” and told her she was not leaving. They confiscated her passport and money, and said she could only leave the house ­accompanied by an in-law.

This was the beginning of three years of abuse as Sars attempted to have her extradited, only to see their efforts thwarted by the family, whose security connections in Pakistan were excellent.

Pienaar said her armed brother-in-law was assigned to guard her. She was threatened with rape, shot at once and a plate was broken over her head.

“I knew I couldn’t live like that. I was a slave and treated like a piece of dog shit...I had to get out.”

Pienaar was allowed to speak ­occasionally to her sister in South Africa. They always spoke in ­Afrikaans.

Early last year, she told her sister to contact the South African investigators, and tell them that she wanted out and would cooperate.

When Pienaar spoke to her sister again, the woman handed her phone to a Sars investigator. For months Pienaar and the investigator plotted her escape in Afrikaans so they would not be ­understood.

Then last year, the investigator told Jacqueline that they were ­coming to Pakistan to get her. They planned to get her on a weekday morning when her mother-in-law and brother-in-law left the house to put flowers on family graves.

“That was the chance to run, to get the hell out of here. But I would only have a few minutes. If you’re not there, I’m dead.”

Pakistani officials at the highest levels agreed to let the South Africans get her out through Islamabad’s international airport.

By the beginning of August 2011, a team consisting of Sars investigators and State Security Agency (SSA) agents were dispatched to Pakistan to do surveillance. On the last day of August last year, Pienaar and her two children slipped out.

Where are we going, the children, age four and six, wanted to know? Pienaar told them: We are going to play in the park, and if I say run, you run.

Why must we run?

It’s part of the game. Just run if I say so, Pienaar told them.

As they stepped from the house, Pienaar ordered her children: “Run, just run! Around that ­corner!”

Their rescuers were waiting.

They sped away. In the car were toys and clothes for the children, and South African passports and air tickets.

Pienaar burst into tears. The children shrieked with delight. They thought it was a joyride.

Security in and around Lahore had been intensified after the assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden four months earlier. Foreign intelligence agents were certainly not welcomed.

So the convoy drove 260km towards Islamabad, where an Emirates plane for Dubai was waiting.

Pakistani officials whisked the South Africans through customs. Before Jacqueline boarded the plane, she signed an affidavit admitting her role in the syndicate and promising to cooperate.

They arrived in Johannesburg on September 1 last year and she went into a witness protection programme. A short while later, she appeared in court, pleaded guilty to fraud, and received 10 years imprisonment, suspended for five.

This week, sitting in a Sars office, Pienaar concluded: “I’m taking my punishment like a man. I know there’s a hell, because I was there.”

Escape from hell

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