12 November 2012

South Africa: Rhino Court Case - Why Were Charges Withdrawn Against Thai National?s Co-Accused?

press release

There is good reason to celebrate the 40-year jail sentence handed down by a magistrate to Thai national, Chumlong Lemthongthai, for (among other things) the illegal trade in rhino horn and customs violations. The DA hopes the sentence will be retained if it is appealed. Not only is the sentence deserved considering the assault on South Africa's rhino population by ruthless poachers and illegal traders, but it sends a strong signal to other individuals involved in this illicit business. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe welcomed the sentence on Friday, but regrettably made no comment about the withdrawal of charges against five of Lemthongthai's co-accused. Lemthongthai pled guilty to 59 charges. With so many charges it is incomprehensible that prosecution was not pursued against other individuals.

The DA will this week submit parliamentary questions to the Justice Minister requesting full information on why charges were withdrawn against the co-accused, and whether the NPA will reinstitute charges against any of the co-accused.

The traffic of ill-gotten rhino horn out of South Africa involves numerous steps. It is not sufficient to prosecute and sentence only the traders and buyers. It has not been fully explained why those individuals arrested with Lemthongthai for alleged offences in relation to his, other than the one individual who turned state witness, have not faced charges in court. The NPA claims there was insufficient evidence, but that answer does not suffice.

The publishing of a video on the website of the Mail & Guardian on Friday showing a pseudo rhino hunt at which Lemgthongthai was present along with several co-accused strongly suggests that there are charges that the co-accused need to account for.

Beyond the co-accused of Lemthongthai, it is time that officials in the North West Department of Economic Development, Environment, Conservation and Tourism are also held to account for their role in awarding permits for pseudo hunts in 2010 and 2011. Government officials were at the start of the chain that resulted in illegally attained horns getting into the hands of Lemthongthai. The problems in the North West Department are well acknowledged by the national Department of Environmental Affairs, which has taken various steps to tighten up the permit awarding processes, and has placed an effective moratorium on awarding of permits to nationals from Vietnam. But no investigation has been done into the officials in North West to establish whether they knowingly issued permits for rhino hunts and whether they made any attempt to ensure hunts complied with permit conditions.

With this in mind I requested the Public Protector on Friday to conduct an investigation into the North West Department of Economic Development, Environment, Conservation and Tourism around these matters. I hope that the Public Protector will agree to the request and determine whether any offences or omissions have occurred, and whether any action needs to be taken against officials.

Gareth Morgan, Shadow Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs

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