Menzi wields the axe

2010-04-18 10:23

NATIONAL Director of Public ­Prosecutions (NDPP) Menzi ­Simelane has effectively disbanded the ­country’s most successful ­crime-fighting body, the Asset ­Forfeiture Unit (AFU), in a ­restructuring plan unveiled this week.

The position of current AFU head, advocate Willie Hofmeyr, is ­uncertain.

City Press understands that Hofmeyr received a curt text ­message from Simelane earlier this month informing him the AFU in its present form had ceased to exist.

All AFU staff, including the five regional heads, will now report ­directly to the provincial Directors of Public Prosecutions (DPPs) and ultimately to Simelane.

The changes are mooted in the NPA’s draft strategic plan for ­2010 to 2015, presented to the National ­Assembly on Tuesday.

The plan, which still has to be ­approved by Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe, outlines several other changes to the operation of the ­National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

The NPA’s administrative ­division will now be housed in the justice department, placing it ­within the executive rather than as an independent structure.

The changes will have significant consequences for several other ­specialised units within the NPA such as the Commercial Crimes Unit, the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit and the Sexual Offences Unit.

Units will now be ­designated as ‘special advisers’ to Simelane and to the various deputy DPPs.

Analysts warn that the move could have a negative impact on the country’s ability to investigate and prosecute complex criminal cases.

One NPA insider who wished to remain anonymous said: “They have effectively been disbanded, and it will take forever to conclude investigations with so many ­managers and decision-makers to go through.”

The NPA has rejected suggestions there was anything untoward in the new structure, saying it was merely handing back prosecutorial powers to the DPPs.

In a similar ‘realignment’ plan a year ago, the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO), or Scorpions, were killed off.

The nature of the cases referred to the AFU has been drastically ­impacted by the shutting down of the Scorpions last year, according to its yearly report.

It is precisely the issue of the type of cases taken by the AFU, combined with Simelane’s perceived political partisanship, that has some uneasy about the new structure.

Concern has been raised that the AFU in its new form would have ­neither the resources nor the ­political will to undertake cases ­involving well-connected people.

Last month, media reports ­suggested Simelane had succumbed to political pressure in abandoning a preservation order against alleged arms deal kingpin Fana ­Hlongwane – a former adviser to the former minister of defence, Joe Modise, and the man regarded as holding the ­secrets of who received the arms deal bribe cash. According to Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Institute for Security Studies the move appeared to be­ “another attempt to hollow out the capacity” of a well-run, functioning and successful state institution.

“It would be unfortunate to tinker with it simply for short-term ­political goals,” he said.

The Democratic Alliance, which opposes the ‘diminished’ role of the special units, has slammed the ­strategic plan as “a snakes and ­ladders game in which senior ­officers of the NPA could be sent slithering down the ladder.

Empowered by ­provisions of the Prevention of ­Organised Crime Act of 1998, in 10 years the AFU has ­frozen assets worth more than R3.35 ­billion and ­finalised more than 1?400 cases to the value of R950?million.

Close to R250?million has been ­deposited into the Criminal Assets Recovery Account (Cara) – which is used to fight crime.

Simelane said: “Some cases would be centralised to the office of the NDPP. Naturally, it will be the important ones affecting national interest. For Mr Hofmeyr, nothing has changed.”

Hofmeyr, who is out of the ­country, could not be reached for comment.

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