Next act in Selebi drama

2009-10-24 15:37

IT was exactly at 10.35am on Wednesday when courtroom 4B of the South Gauteng High Court went dead silent.

Proceedings were delayed that day; strange for Judge Meyer Joffe’s courtroom, which normally runs strictly to schedule.

Speculation about the unusual nature of the situation flew from one bench to the next.

Is there another secret tape? Is City Press really going to be investigated for their exposé of a classified video? What will Glenn Agliotti, the state’s star witness who has admitted in court to lying in the past, say today?

But, as is public knowledge now, we were far off the mark: Jackie Selebi’s lawyer, Jaap Cilliers, stood up to tell the court of his “unpleasant task’’: having to ask Judge Joffe to recuse himself from the corruption trial of the former top cop.

At 10.50am, after the shock had worn off, we had to admit we should have seen it coming. Judge Joffe’s relationship with Cilliers began to deteriorate the day Cilliers shook his head in disbelief and told the judge he was “flabbergasted’’ by his remark.

The judge had snapped at Cilliers, “I don’t need your assistance’’ after Cilliers offered to help him find a paragraph in an affidavit. From then on, Cilliers’ body language became hostile and the judge could hardly hide his irritation.

One could argue that Agliotti benefited from this silent feud as he escaped giving direct answers, due to Judge Joffe’s constant objections to Cilliers’ line of questioning.

“No, Mr Cilliers, that question is too long, it’s too much for the witness, try to break it down.”

“Mr Cilliers, the witness has answered the question, he said he doesn’t remember. Can we please move on?”

With no power over the judge, all Cilliers could do was shake his head and move on. But when Judge Joffe denied him permission to cross-examine Agliotti on the contents of a City Press article about a secret video, Cilliers retaliated.

Judge Joffe put his foot down. In a stern voice he reminded Cilliers that “you are addressing me, and not the witness, nor anyone else”.

But could this be reason enough to file an application to have the judge removed? Are Cilliers or Selebi really that sensitive?

Law expert Professor Robin Palmer said recusals were common in South Africa. The person bringing in the application would have to prove actual bias by the judge or that the judge wasn’t applying his mind properly to proceedings.

Palmer said although bickering and tension between a judge and attorney could lead to a client asking for a recusal, they would still need to prove the judge’s “interruptions” were biased against them and favoured the other party.

He said it was obvious the recusal issue was the result of the City Press secret video tape article.

“The judge would never allow the article as evidence even though it proves that Agliotti had been lying. He would have to open the trial and call other witnesses to testify and I doubt he wanted that. But this is what probably angered Selebi,” he said.

Palmer said the judge’s comments about the article could mean he believed that the national intelligence agency (NIA), which has been used to fight political battles in the past, could have leaked the video to the media to influence the court.

“If this is true, then the court must apply its mind and try to find the person leaking this information.”

He also said Selebi would not have a choice but to continue with the trial if Judge Joffe turned down the recusal application, which will be heard in court on Thursday. “They can only argue bias at the end of the trial or opt for an appeal.”

All we can do is wait until 9.15am on Thursday to see how the drama continues.

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