Rhino case struck off roll

2010-10-16 12:06

Pretoria - The High Court in Pretoria on Friday refused to postpone the criminal trial of three alleged rhino horn racketeers and ordered that the 50 charges against them be withdrawn for now.

Judge Nomonde Mngqibisa-Thusi dismissed an application by the state to postpone the trial of safari operators Clayton Fletcher of Bloemfontein, Gert Saaiman of Pretoria and Pretoria hunter Frans Andries van Deventer.

She struck the case off the roll and ordered that it may not be reinstituted without written instructions from the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The charges include racketeering, money laundering, theft and contraventions of the Aviation and Environmental Protection Act.

The judge said the sole reason for the postponement sought by the State related to consultations with the witness Deon van Deventer (Frans Van Deventer's brother) in order to persuade him to testify and prepare him for the trial.

Van Deventer and his older brother Nic were sentenced to eight and three years effective imprisonment respectively on charges relating to poaching in terms of a plea bargain agreement with the State.

The provision was that they became State witnesses against the three accused. Both brothers thereafter refused to testify.

According to the State, Deon van Deventer has since changed his mind and was prepared to testify, although not at the moment as he feared for his safety in jail.

According to a statement by the investigating officer, Van Deventer said he had been pressured by family and two unidentified men not to testify.

He was now only prepared to testify once he had been released on parole.

The same two men had allegedly also visited the former investigating officer in the case and tried to persuade him to adapt his evidence.
Van Deventer had, however, assured his family that he would not testify and that he was going to string the State along.

The judge said the State had made no submissions whatsoever about how it intended persuading Van Deventer to testify and the court was not convinced that he would in fact testify.

The State admitted it could not prove charges of racketeering and money laundering against the accused and that it had no case at all against Saaiman without Van Deventer's evidence.

The defence argued that the accused and their families had already suffered severely after they were arrested in 2006.

Their assets were seized, the personal lives affected and their capacity to earn an income severely curtailed.

The judge said cognisance had to be taken of the accused's right to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty and their right to a fair trial within a reasonable period.

She said it would be unfair to expect of the accused to continue suffering prejudice while the State tried to persuade Van Deventer to testify.

Fletcher's advocate said they were very happy about the ruling --although not about the media coverage of the case.

They were satisfied that justice had prevailed.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said the NPA did not see the ruling as a setback.

"This is not an acquittal. We have the right to reinstitute charges once we've resolved whatever challenges we have," he said.

It is not yet known if the accused will seek an order to set aside the State's confiscation of their assets.