Home News State agrees not to prosecute three gem accused

State agrees not to prosecute three gem accused

536
SHARE

According to the Hawks, cases have been finalised against eight of the accused in the “Project Darling” illicit diamond buying matter.

File image: Reuters/Olivia Harris

THE STATE has agreed not to prosecute three of the accused in the long-running “Project Darling” illicit diamond buying matter.

According to the Hawks, cases have been finalised against eight of the accused.

The trial, which was filled with all the drama and intrigue of a best seller, was supposed to be placed back on the court roll after the Directorate of Public Prosecutions in the Northern Cape approached the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court last year.

Thirteen accused (including well-known persons in the local diamond industry) – Ashley Brooks, Patrick Mason, Monojkumar Detroya, Komilan Packirisamy, Ahmed Khorani, Antonella Florio-Poone, McDonald Visser, Willem Weenink, Joseph Sarel van Graaf, Carl Steve van Graaf, Kevin Urry, Trevor Pikwane and Frank Perridge – were arrested in 2014.

The charges against them included racketeering, corruption and illegal dealing in uncut diamonds.

Evidence was obtained through traps that were set up by the police in an undercover operation dubbed ‘Project Darling’, where the accused allegedly purchased illicit diamonds in transactions amounting to R28 million.

Brooks signed a plea agreement – where he pleaded guilty to nine charges involving dealing in unpolished diamonds to the value of R9.3 million.

He was instructed to pay a R10 million fine and was handed an eight-year prison sentence that was wholly suspended for five years by the Regional Magistrate’s Court last month.

The fine is to be paid into the Criminal Assets Recovery Account (Cara), with the first R2 million instalment payable on January 25 this year.

The State has agreed not to pursue further prosecution against Mason, Visser and Florio-Poone provided that the R10 million fine is settled in full by 2025.

The only additional condition attached was that the accused not be found guilty of a similar offence.

Brooks, a self-employed mining consultant and businessman, explained that due to the sharp decline in the economy he had been struggling financially over the last few years. He therefore resorted to deals to pay off “mounting debts”, which led to the charges.

At the time that the transactions took place he was declared uncreditworthy and was unable to secure a loan by conventional means.

Brooks admitted that he had purchased six unpolished diamonds from an undercover agent along with Detroya to the value of R92,000.

He further confessed to purchasing six unpolished diamonds together with Detroya and Khorani on April 12, 2013 to the value of R284,000.

Brooks pleaded guilty to purchasing six unpolished diamonds together with co-accused Mason to the value of R284,000 in March 2013 and another six unpolished diamonds together with Mason to the value of R287,000 in April 2013.

On June 18, 2013 he also bought six unpolished diamonds along with Mason to the value of R750,000.

He purchased six unpolished diamonds valued at R3.7 million together with Mason on October 15, 2013.

Brooks also confessed to purchasing six unpolished diamonds together with Joseph van Graaf on April 25, 2013 to the value of R281,000.

He bought another six unpolished diamonds together with Van Graaf on July 30, 2013 to the value of R667,000.

Brooks admitted to purchasing 19 unpolished diamonds with his co-accused Urry, valued at R2.9 million.

He acknowledged that he knew that his conduct was unlawful and that he had acted with “requisite intention”.

In the plea agreement, the deputy director of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), advocate Johan Roothman, pointed out that there was no “complainant in the strict sense of the word”.

“The offence did not result in physical harm being suffered by any person. The time and effort required to combat this offence, which is prevalent in the Northern Cape, is not cost effective.”

He stated that the prosecutor and the legal representative of the accused had held extensive negotiations and discussions regarding the possible duration of the trial and cost implications to the State.

Roothman added that the State had recouped a portion of the losses incurred, from the payment received by the agent for the diamonds.

It was indicated that Brooks was not a first offender as he had previous convictions for housebreaking and dealing in diamonds, which were committed more than 10 years ago.

“He showed remorse by pleading guilty to the charges and has accepted responsibility for his actions.”

The regional spokesperson for the NPA, Mojalefa Senokoatsane, advised Thursday that the matter is still sub judice.

“The prosecution team is liaising with the legal representatives of the accused to determine a suitable date for the enrolment of the matter. The date for the enrolment will be communicated in due course. No further comments will be forwarded at this stage,” said Senokoatsane.

No comment was provided on how Brooks would be able to afford to pay the R10 million fine if he was struggling financially, or whether any of the other co-accused mentioned in the plea agreement or on the charge sheet would also contribute towards the payment of the fine.

Hawks spokesperson Nomthandazo Mnisi said that two of the accused pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a R15 million fine as well as two years’ imprisonment suspended for five years.

She referred media enquiries regarding the identities of the two accused who pleaded guilty and those of the eight accused whose cases have been finalised to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions.

“The case is being handled by justice,” said Mnisi.

During the trial, which spanned over four years, defence witness Marius Korff, a former SAPS employee, testified that De Beers had funded the undercover operation to infiltrate a network of alleged illegal diamond buying in the Kimberley area.

He stated that De Beers “bigwigs” made lucrative cash incentives to police officers, including the investigating officer, his commander as well as the undercover agent Linton Jephta.

Jephta claimed that he was offered bribes while the investigating officer stated that Jephta was paid R1 million for his role as the undercover agent.

The presiding officer, Northern Cape High Court Judge Bulelwa Pakati, recused herself from the case in 2018 after death threats were made to herself and children, where she was apparently told that she was “giving the accused a hard time”.

The defence brought an application for her recusal, indicating that she had not immediately disclosed an e-mail to the court detailing an alleged attempt to “unduly influence her” through the offer of a bribe.

Judge Johann Daffue granted a permanent stay of prosecution in the Northern Cape High Court in 2018 due to “unreasonable delays”.

He lambasted the State for “not having its ducks in a row”.

Daffue described the police’s “high-handed and robust” approach during the arrest of the accused as “sickening” and also condemned the “exorbitant” bail amounts that were set.

The case was at an advanced stage and the defence argued that their clients would not be given a fair trial.

The accused related that the legal battle had left them in financial ruin and their reputations in tatters.

Delivering judgment in the Supreme Court of Appeal in July 2020, Judge Jannie Eksteen concluded that the State could not be blamed for the delays.

He instructed that the charges be reinstated and that the State should speedily proceed with the legal process.

Eksteen pointed out that racketeering could attract a life sentence and that corruption was undermining the moral fibre of society.

He overturned the decision to set aside the permanent stay of prosecution against the accused.