Hennie van Vuuren | Gupta extradition: Time to exit la-la land

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A group of people protest outside the United Arab Emirates embassy in Pretoria earlier this month to call for the speedy extradition of the Guptas. Photo: Deaan Vivier / Gallo images / beeld
A group of people protest outside the United Arab Emirates embassy in Pretoria earlier this month to call for the speedy extradition of the Guptas. Photo: Deaan Vivier / Gallo images / beeld


South Africa must be wary of the motive and intentions of the UAE on the Gupta matter, writes Hennie van Vuuren.

The arrest and detention of Atul and Rajesh Gupta in Dubai is the first step in what could be an epic battle to bring home two of the most wanted crooks in South Africa. Dubai is no democracy and the crisis-ridden National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had better up its game if it wishes to prevail in this money laundering paradise.

In 1968, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could count 13 registered cars. Today, its boulevards, built off the backs of exploited foreign labour, are the playground of the criminally wealthy.

Traffic police in Lamborghinis and Bugattis race alongside the Guptas in their limited-edition Rolls-Royce Twilight. Jacob Zuma’s venal son Duduzane, when in Dubai, currently vacillates between a red Ferrari and a white Maserati.

READ: Claims Gupta arrests aimed at diverting attention from Ramaphosa's 'farmgate' are baseless - Lamola

The spoils of state capture that drove nearly 2 million people into poverty are flaunted for all to see.

More mirror than mirage

The young Zuma, now a self-acclaimed businessperson, is always close to the stench of Gupta cash. Politically, he was not far away from a violent insurrection last July, the closest a democratic South Africa has come to a coup attempt.

A man with presidential ambition, he recently set out his vision for South Africa and the answer is simple – it needs to become more like his beloved Dubai.

He said: 

Twenty years is what it has taken to build the most modern, newest city in the world based on technology, futurism and openness, and that is Dubai. The UAE has gone a long way into backing their vision, not just talking about it, but doing it, and it’s been based purely on hard work.

What exactly would South Africa look like if it were to become Dubai under president Zuma II?

Despite all the snake oil he may peddle on social media, it would look very much like the height of apartheid – a fantasy land built for the whims of the ruling class, deeply undemocratic, with little adherence to basic human rights maintained by a mix of abundant natural resources, cheap labour and an entrenched criminalised economy.

It’s a vision of a world which, to be fair, is more straight-up mega Sun City than dour white supremacy.

Unsurprisingly, Dubai is a major growth centre for the Rupert family-owned Richemont luxury brands group, proving that, in the Arabian desert, Afrikaner plutocrats and the architects of state capture can co-exist peacefully at the trough of consumption.

This is a society in which the political leadership swan about in gold-plated cars, satisfied in the knowledge that they are immune to any accountability for either their excesses of power or profits from the climate crisis.

How did they get this magic mixture that appeals to Mr Zuma just right? They simply dispensed of the trivial matter of the rule of law, all with the okay of cosy foreign allies such as BP and Washington, DC.

The NPA in La-La Land

Crucially for South Africa, the country will rely on the legal system of the UAE to ensure the successful extradition of Rajesh and Atul Gupta, the kingpins of state capture, to face justice on home soil.

All this was set in motion by a competent group of prosecutors at the NPA, led by Hermione Cronje, who obtained the Interpol red notice for the arrest of the Guptas on February 28.

This was Cronje’s last day on the job, as she and other qualified state capture prosecutors began to exit an institution in crisis, with no real plan or intention to fix it.

What we now know from news reports is that Dubai authorities contacted their South African counterparts for further information on March 1, to which they received a response on May 20 – a full 81 days later.

What happened in the intervening period is anyone’s guess. But it is extraordinary that such wilful disinterest would be shown in the Gupta brothers, given the pain they and their corporate and political enablers have wrought on South Africans.

The likely culprits for this are the police, but, even so, why were the NPA and the justice minister not breathing down their necks and demanding progress reports?

That the South African authorities bothered to answer the UAE authorities at all probably has much to do with the negative press generated by hard questions from Daily Maverick journalist Jessica Bezuidenhout, published on May 21.

It serves as a record of the absolute chaos that reigned within the SA Police Service and the NPA, as well as the departments of justice, international relations and cooperation, and state security. They were either collectively careless or clueless, or both.

This trend has continued in recent days. Consider the response to the arrest of the two Gupta brothers on June 7. Instead of the head of the NPA and the justice minister calling a press conference to inform the nation, this was left to a tweet from Dubai authorities following the “cooperative arrest” at the Gupta mansion.

It is also unlikely that the NPA was caught by surprise, as rumours of an arrest began doing the rounds as early as June 2.

Send in the B-Team

The South African public have rightly anticipated an announcement from the NPA of a team of crack lawyers who will make the case against the Guptas in the UAE.

They would need to work with prosecutors in that country and ensure that the Guptas’ bail application is denied so they cannot flee to one of their boltholes across the globe. They would then settle in to work on securing their extradition.

Who would be fit to lead such a team? One would imagine any number of fine senior counsel would have availed themselves.

These are women and men who have worked with the NPA and the Zondo commission, and best understand the inner workings of how the Gupta clan and their accomplices stole more than R16 billion from the South African people.

We have now learnt that the best advocate the NPA could secure is Anton Katz, a newcomer to investigations of state capture and money flows.

Katz may claim some knowledge on extradition matters, but he has limited insight into the substantive issue – state capture.

It seems fair to ask the simple questions: Does National Director of Public Prosecutions Advocate Shamila Batohi and her leadership team believe they have assembled the most competent legal team the South African legal profession has to offer?

READ: DEVELOPING | Gupta brothers held at undisclosed police station in Dubai

They face a legal battle that could make or break the public’s confidence in the effectiveness of the NPA to tackle high-level economic crimes.

The NPA is foolish to imagine it will find an easy route to justice in an abnormal society such as Dubai’s.

It is entering a knife fight empty-handed, a fight in which the Guptas’ legal team is unlikely to be its only opponent. The reason for this is that the UAE does not have an independent judiciary.

In 2014, Gabriela Knaul, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, found that the judicial system in the UAE was “under the de facto control of the executive branch of the government”. There is little to suggest that this has changed.

Therefore, the NPA must prepare for both a legal tussle as well as a political one.

It is highly unlikely that the UAE prosecutors will have their minds swayed if the monarchy has made a decision in advance.

All that Glitters is not Gold

The society that Duduzane Zuma so extols is one in which human rights organisations report that journalists and activists are routinely detained, tortured and imprisoned.

It would be hard to imagine writing an article like this in the UAE without facing intrusion from the state using Israeli-purchased Pegasus spyware or probable imprisonment.

The majority of the country’s population are poor workers from south and Southeast Asia, who have little protection from labour abuse and cannot enjoy any protection from a trade union.

To understand how the Emirati elite are tainted by human rights abuses, consider the fact that Interpol, the global policing body which facilitated the arrest of the Guptas, is headed since last year by Emirati General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi. In March, French anti-terror prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into torture and acts of barbarism allegedly committed by Al-Raisi. This was based on complaints by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights that he was responsible for the torture of an opposition figure in his role as a high-ranking official in the UAE interior ministry.

The country’s international conduct is also less than exemplary. The UAE, together with Saudi Arabia, has led a coalition waging war in Yemen, which has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

As Open Secrets, an organisation that exposes private sector economic crimes and builds accountability, has shown, South Africa, particularly during the Zuma years, cashed in on this war by selling weapons to the UAE and its allies. Those weapons have been used in attacks on civilians in Yemen. Between 2011 and 2019, more than R7 billion worth of weapons were sold by South Africa to the UAE with the approval of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, despite evidence of the UAE’s complicity in human rights abuses and war crimes.

Dubai has done what cash-rich authoritarian regimes do – it has doubled down on damage control and gone on the defensive.

READGupta extradition request set for swift start as NPA gears up for battle

The Dubai expo was a prime example of reputation laundering, and was visited by President Cyril Ramaphosa and a senior government delegation in March.

The UAE wants to polish its image to present a Disneyland in the desert – a far more appealing destination than the de facto death camp for the poor and marginalised that it is.

Gangsters’ Paradise

Right now, the UAE is in trouble. The rapid financialisation of its economy in the past 20 years has seen it become a haven for multinational corporations attracted by its low tax rates and a financial system grafted on to the global system of hot money flows.

According to the Tax Justice Network, the UAE is in the top 10 of corporate tax havens and is one of the worst performers in corporate financial secrecy indices. This has served the Emirati elite well and left them bathing in Champagne.

For years, the international community as well as the US and its allies were happy to tolerate this criminal enterprise. However, the UAE has now found itself on the wrong side of Washington.

The reason is Russia’s war on Ukraine and the fact that Dubai has become central to Russia’s global illicit economy.

In May, a consortium of reporters from 20 publications worked on a data leak that shows how Dubai has become a hub for money laundering.

One area of concern is real estate, with the investigators identifying more than 100 Russian public officials who own properties in Dubai that they should not be able to afford. Some of these individuals also feature on sanctions lists for their proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invading army.

More worrying from an African perspective is that the UAE has become the central hub for laundering gold from Sudan.

A New York Times investigation published on June 7 shows that the Kremlin-connected mercenary group Wagner, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, is playing a key role in extracting gold across Sudan, which is then shipped out of the country on Russian military aircraft and primarily passed through the UAE.

Last year, the UAE was reported to have acted as a conduit for more than $1.7 billion (R27 billion) in gold, which equals half of Sudan’s exports.

All this has made the US tetchy. A sign of this irritation with its ally was a decision in March by the intergovernmental anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to place the UAE on its “grey list”. This is essentially a watch list for countries that have developed an appetite for blood money laundering, which is contaminating the financial system. It’s bad for business, as compliance requirements increase and, when that happens, corporations start to think of moving elsewhere in the region.

None of this should be news to South Africans. Dubai, together with Hong Kong and Bermuda, was central to the global state capture enterprise. It provided many of the shell companies used to launder cash for the Gupta enterprise. It is also home to many of the enablers of state capture.

Clean-up or cover-up?

This is where South Africa’s quest for justice and Dubai’s quest for reputation laundering probably intersect. It is clear that the UAE was quick to comply with the Interpol red notice issued for the arrest of the Guptas by the NPA in February. UAE authorities have also crowed about the Guptas’ arrest because it serves the purpose of letting the US and the FATF know that it is serious about money laundering.

However, it is fair to infer a certain amount of cynicism from the Dubai authorities. Given past experience, they may expect that the NPA under Batohi’s leadership is likely to bungle this case.

This is a crucial calculation, as the UAE does not want a protracted Gupta prosecution that further exposes the complicity of its private institutions in the criminal state capture enterprise.

If it was serious, the state could have simply accessed the Guptas’ bank accounts and used this evidence to pick them up in a police Lamborghini and prosecute them years ago.

While the UAE can draw an advantage out of the Guptas’ arrest, the successful extradition of any of the Gupta brothers or their lieutenant, Salim Essa, to stand trial in South Africa is far less desirable.

Given the independence of South African courts, the Dubai authorities will not have effective control of legal hearings, which are likely to expose more details of Dubai’s dirty money laundering architecture. Arrest is therefore the easy part; extradition is likely to be scuppered by those in power in the UAE.

It is possible that South Africa is being played right now.

All this suggests that the NPA’s leadership must be shocked into action. It’s time to exit La-La Land. If the justice minister is serious about his job, he should be intimating the same.

If the NPA fails to ensure the successful extradition of the Guptas due to procedural bungling or the appointment of lacklustre lawyers, it fails the South African people. It would be an act tantamount to sabotage for which the public would rightly call for the resignation of the full leadership at the NPA.

The next move is in the hands of Advocate Batohi. Will she choose to take charge or will she give up?

Van Vuuren is the director of Open Secrets 


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