Rhino poachers win leave to appeal 26-year sentence

Picture of dead rhino. (Supplied)
Picture of dead rhino. (Supplied)

Nelspruit - A former South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldier who was convicted and sentenced to 26 years for poaching rhino in the Kruger National Park has, together with his accomplice, appealed his sentence.

Leonard Bhuti Mashego, 56, from Pienaar Trust outside Mbombela, who was sentenced together with his co-accused Michael Sithole, 53, a herbalist from Clau Clau Trust, requested leave to appeal in the Nelspruit Regional Court on Friday.

"I have requested for leave to appeal against my conviction and sentence. I would request [Legal Aid SA] to assist me in this matter," said Mashego, who was earlier assisted by a private lawyer.

His co-accused, Sithole, told Magistrate Andre Geldenhuys that he had called his family to assist him in getting a private lawyer, but was now requesting legal aid.

"My family has failed to get me the private lawyer due to financial problems," said Sithole.

Geldenhuys said the court would grant them the chance to lodge their appeal.

23 charges

State prosecutor Simon Mamabolo, who represented senior State prosecutor Advocate Isabet Erwee, asked the court to postpone the matter until a further date to enable the accused to secure their defence.

The two were arrested after a shootout involving rangers in the Bristol area of the Kruger Park on September 25, 2010. Mashego was wounded in the shoulder during the incident.

They faced 23 charges, including killing and dehorning six rhino, illegal activities in the game reserve, carrying out a restricted activity involving a threatened species, possession of an illegal firearm and ammunition, and failing to report a stolen firearm.

They were sentenced to 26 years' imprisonment on July 13 after they were found guilty on 13 counts. Mashego's defence, that he went into the park to search for his stray cows, failed to save him from a long prison sentence.

Geldenhuys said, from testimony by rangers, it was established that there was a hole in the fence which Mashego used as an entrance. He also rejected Sithole's defence that he was digging for muthi outside the park and that the rifle found lying next to him was planted by the rangers.

'Well planned' operation

Erwee said the sentences should fit the crimes committed, as the number of rhino killed was on the increase despite efforts to save them.

"The operation was well planned. Firearms and ammunition were organised and accused two wore his SANDF uniform and an army bag was used in carrying the horns," said Erwee. She said it was obvious the two were brutal in the manner that they shot at the animals.

"They fired their rifles multiple times with little regard for what happened to the animals. As a result of the continuous poaching, security and patrols have been increased in the parks in order to hear the shootings from a distance. It is a costly operation," said Erwee.

Geldenhuys confirmed that despite Mashego having a licence for his .303 rifle he faced charges of illegal possession of a firearm relating to the one found on Sithole as they had both acted together with common purpose.

The case was postponed to October 19.

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