Soni changes his tune

2018-09-25 11:36
Convicted murderer Rajivee Soni at the Pietermaritzburg high court on Friday.

Convicted murderer Rajivee Soni at the Pietermaritzburg high court on Friday. (Ian Carbutt)

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In an ironic twist on Friday the defence team for former businessman Rajivee Soni has urged a high court judge to find that the killing of Pietermaritzburg doctor Bhavish Sewram was a “crime of passion”, motivated by an “emotional storm” suffered by Soni over Sewram’s affair with his wife.

This is in spite of Soni’s insistence throughout his trial that by the time the doctor was murdered in May 2013 he had no motive at all to kill him.

This was because he and the doctor had already made up their differences over Sewram’s flirtation with his wife, Kerusha, and he and his wife had reconciled, he said.

The Pietermaritzburg high court was packed to capacity on Wednesday with concerned family and supporters of both Sewram and Soni, as well as interested onlookers. Many had popped in to observe the goings-on in what has been a marathon trial spanning several years, accompanied by all the trappings of a legal television drama.

Judge Jacqueline Henriques, sitting with assessor Gerhard Barnard, said she needed the time to consider what she said were the various “extraordinary and complex” issues raised during legal arguments.

In particular, she referenced the fact that in terms of his divorce settlement with his ex-wife Kerusha (reached in December 2017), Soni was made the “primary caregiver” of their daughter.

In terms of South African law, courts have to take into account what the effect will be on a child if the primary caregiver is sent to prison.

In between adjournments of the trial for the tea and lunch breaks, Soni was rushed downstairs to the court cells and had little time to interact with his legal team and the public in the gallery.

Defence advocate Jimmy Howse told Judge Jacqueline Henriques and Barnard that in seeking a sentence of less than the prescribed minimum of life imprisonment for the doctor’s murder, the defence based its arguments on the prosecution’s version and the conclusions reached by the court in its judgment. “We do so well knowing Mr Soni’s version of events,” he said.

He said from the outset the prosecution alleged that Soni had “formed a strong suspicion” that his wife was involved in a romantic relationship with Dr Sewram, which was borne out by the evidence of state witnesses, including former “rogue” policeman Sugen Naidoo, which was accepted as true by the court.

In the state’s own words, Soni became “so emotionally devastated” by what was in his mind that he had decided to exact revenge, said Howse. “It is against this background that the court should consider what is a suitable sentence,” he said.

Howse and advocate Christo van Schalkwyk, SC — who presented the court with a bundle of historic cases in which infidelity was viewed as a mitigating factor and had the effect of lowering sentences — argued that the “emotional storm” suffered by Soni due to his marital problems was reason for the court not to sentence him to life imprisonment.

Another was that he is the primary caregiver of his 11-year-old daughter, even though the couple share parenting duties. Their son (4) lives with his mother. Howse said if Soni is sentenced to life in prison it will be “life changing” for the children whom he supports financially.

He added that while the defence agrees that “only a prison sentence” is appropriate in the case, if Soni is given a “determinate” sentence rather than life, the conditions in prison will be more conducive to him maintaining a relationship with his daughter.

Howse said the campaign by Soni to get “revenge” on the doctor for his affair was a “small attempt to hit back” at the doctor. These offences included laying of three false charges against the doctor — one of assault and two of sexual assault — as well as an attack on the doctor by shooting him with paintball guns. He said Soni’s behaviour should also be viewed against his uncontested evidence that the doctor had behaved aggressively towards him (Soni) during this time.

Howse referred to Soni’s evidence that Sewram once “threw a snowball hard” at him, hitting him in the chest; that he’d pushed him into a ball pool in front of his guests at a child’s birthday party; and sent him a text message in which he reportedly referred to Soni’s “lack of education”.

But state advocate Johan du Toit said the defence was over-simplifying matters.

“Most crimes of passion happen on the spur of the moment … here we have this thing dating back to 2011,” he said.

Du Toit said Soni’s campaign, which was designed to “drive the doctor out of town” through a series of false charges and the paintball attack on him, went “from bad to worse” and ended in murder.

He said the vengeance Soni tried to extract had spanned 18 to 20 months, before Soni approached Professor Mlungisi Sithebe to kill Soni in February 2013 and subsequently succeeded in having him killed on May 13, 2013 by hired hitmen — Sabelo Dlamini, Brian Treasurer and Mfaniseni Nxumalo.

He said throughout Soni had no regard for the consequences his behaviour had or would have on his daughter, or for that matter on Sewram’s family (including the doctor’s two children). “What he had regard to was his ego,” said Du Toit.

He said although Soni’s children’s lives would be affected by his imprisonment, “this is what happens when you commit crime”.

Similarly the lives of his victims were also affected, he said.

He also pointed out that Soni’s children are and can be adequately cared for by their mother, even though their lifestyle might change.

Damages claims against Soni

Defence advocate Jimmy Howse said Dr Bhavish Sewram’s widow, Yuvadia, and his parents, Parmanand and Nalini Sewram, have instituted civil damages claims against Rajivee Soni for causing his death.

Yuvadia Sewram is claiming damages of R6 457 714 in her personal capacity and R4 179 581 on behalf of her two children; Parmanand Sewram is suing for R2 190 000 and his wife, Nalini, for R3 390 000.

 

‘Using child to get leniency sad’

Sewram’s widow, Yuvadia, said it saddened her as a mother to see Soni using his innocent child to plead for leniency for his heinous crime. “I am confident he will get his dues,” she added.

Soni a ‘generally law-abiding person’

Defence advocate Jimmy Howse said at 42 years old and being a first offender, Soni had proved he is a “generally law-abiding person”.

He painted a picture of him as being a religious man who did “good work” in the community such as sponsoring a child with cerebral palsy, and donating bread to the needy.

He said he has proved to be a successful businessman “through his own hard work” and he was a productive member of society.

A month in prison before sentencing

The wealthy businessman was first arrested and granted bail of R100 000 in August 2013 but his high court trial only got under way two years later in 2015. Soni throughout strongly denied any guilt and instead claimed he was being framed by “corrupt policemen” who had tried to extort money from him.

Soni, who spent his first two nights in jail this week after being found guilty on six charges on Wednesday, faces another month in prison before he will learn what his sentence will be on October 26.

Father pays tribute to late doctor

Dr Bhavish Sewram’s father, Parmanand, paid tribute to his late son in a victim impact statement handed to court. “His death caused part of us to die,” he said.

He said his son had been passionate about serving the “poorest, the lowest and the lost”.

“He was a source of hope, encouragement and joy to all and endeared himself to whoever he came into contact with,” he said.

After the murder, family members had to seek counselling for trauma.

Sewrams want life sentence for Soni

Parmanand and Nalini Sewram said they were happy Soni was in custody pending his sentencing, but said they will be disappointed if he does not get the minimum life sentence for their son’s murder.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  soni murder trial

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