South African MD’s hell in a Malagasy prison

South African MD’s hell in a Malagasy prison

A South African businessman has been in detention for more than three months in one of Madagascar’s most overcrowded prisons, for fraud he claims he didn’t commit. With the rest of the island state in the middle of a fierce presidential elections battle, he’s unlikely to have any respite until well after Christmas.

Madagascar is an island-state with heavenly scenery and some weird and wonderful creatures, but its prisons are hell. Some die there of starvation, and in 2017, 52 awaiting-trial detainees perished.

Even minor theft charges could, under Malagasy law, see detainees wait for more than five years for their case to appear in court. Amnesty International in its recent report Punished for being poor: unjustified, excessive and prolonged pre-trial detention in Madagascar found that “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” here violated international laws and standards.

Weeks before the country’s most recent president, Hery Rajanoarimampianina, stepped aside to allow a temporary government to take over in September for the anticipated four-month elections period, 46-year-old South African Chris van Jaarsveld was imprisoned. He had, for the past five years, been the managing director of Quality Transmission Equipment (QTE), a contractor erecting cell phone masts on the island.

Chris van Jaarsveld (supplied)

Andrew Edmondson, executive director of QTE in South Africa, told Rapport (paywall) that the company earlier in 2018 brought an auditor from South Africa to have a look at its books after he suspected money was going missing. Soon after, the chief financial officer was booked off sick and had been unable to give statements to law enforcement authorities since. The officer’s assistant has left to start a business in Dubai and has also been unavailable to give statements for the investigation.

We closed the [company’s] account to prevent any further transactions from going through. After we closed it, the cheque to one of the suppliers wasn’t paid out, and he brought the case against Chris,” Edmondson told Rapport. The company lost its contract and 700 local employees — including the officer in question — lost their jobs.

There is a suspicion that the stolen money — estimated to be more than R40-million over three years — was used towards the election campaign of one of the presidential candidates.

Van Jaarsveld has blamed the officer for having forged his signature on a number of cheques and embezzling the millions in the process. Despite Van Jaarsveld getting an expert to testify that the signatures on the cheques were not his, he had been refused bail three times without reasons being given by the court. Edmondson said the officer destroyed the electronic bank statements which could have served as evidence, while hard copies disappeared.

According to a French-language Malagasy paper, which didn’t publish Van Jaarsveld’s side of the story and which didn’t name him save for a large picture with his eyes blacked out, he was “placed under a detention warrant for extorting 1-billion Ariary (roughly R3.7-million) from a Malagasy economic operator”.

It reported that a Malagasy operator, which the paper didn’t name, wanted to import building materials from South Africa in January through Van Jaarsveld’s company, and that there was a relationship of trust between the two.

Once the deal was concluded, the South African kept claiming money from the plaintiff for nearly a month,” the paper reported, but no goods were delivered. The South African “still had excuses, including a strike of employees at the Port of Toamasina”, and agreed on a refund, which is where the company cheque bounced and the Malagasy operator decided to file a complaint. According to the paper Van Jaarsveld blamed the financial officer who was booked off sick.

Van Jaarsveld’s wife, Anne Castel, said she was sick with worry. She feared not only for his safety and health in the prison, which she described as “hell”, but also for her own safety and their 10-year-old daughter’s. The lack of transparency in the legal process had her suspecting that there were some bigger, and more powerful, forces at play.

Van Jaarsveld was held in police detention for a week after the complaint was brought. Van Jaarsveld was told the complainant had a lot of contacts and would “put him away for a long time”. After a magistrate heard his story, however, Van Jaarsveld was released. The magistrate said the investigation was incomplete and the financial officer should also have been arrested. But a week later the court called him back and the magistrate recommended that he be held in detention. This was despite a doctor recommending bail due to bad blood circulation and asthma.

For more than three months, Van Jaarsveld has been sharing an overcrowded cell with 130 prisoners in the Antanimora prison in Antananarivo. They also share one toilet — a hole in the ground. According to Amnesty International’s report, the prison was meant for 800 inmates, but held almost four times as many. Prisoners slept like sardines on mattresses, with some having to lie in the hallway because of a lack of space. Inmates kept being woken by warders and fellow prisoners for money and cigarettes. Prisoners stole from one another and were subject to constant verbal abuse. Homemade knives were freely available and alcohol was smuggled into prison.

Everything cost money, from the buckets of water used for showering, to visits by family members to bring food or medicine — even the court hearings. Prisoners were also expected to pay for pizza deliveries for the warders, who are currently also doing money collections for Christmas bonuses. Still, Van Jaarsveld could be considered lucky. Many in Malagasy prisons have been unable to contact their families to tell them they are in prison, and they have to make do with one meal of 500g of dried cassava (also known as manioc) a day due to lack of prison funds, according to the Amnesty report. About half the prisoners suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition, and some die from it.

South African embassy staff in Madagascar have made attempts to understand Van Jaarsveld’s situation, but with most of the government tied up in election campaigns (the second and final round is December 19), their hands have mostly been tied. International Relations and Co-operation spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said the department was aware of Van Jaarsveld’s case.

Ambassador Maud Dlomo had met with the minister of police and an official from the justice ministry in an attempt to get answers about Van Jaarsveld’s bail and detention. An embassy official, accompanied by a Malagasy translator, also met Van Jaarsveld in prison.

We continue to monitor this case,” Mabaya said. “I am sure the judges have a reason (for denying him bail). Every country has its processes and guidelines on when to give bail and when not to give bail. We can only ask for bail for him until he is given it, and that is what we are doing.”

The Malagasy government told Amnesty International it is severely cash-strapped and struggling to cope with increasing levels of crime and inmates. Statistics are hard to come by, but there have been reports of an increase in violent crimes since an unconstitutional change of government in 2009. The “attempted coup d’etat”, as the African Union called it, saw an outbreak of politically related violence and triggered an economic downturn and unemployment due to international sanctions.

Meanwhile, Castel fears her husband could be stuck in prison until well after Christmas, at best, as the courts will soon go on recess for a month. With the family’s savings almost depleted due to legal and prison costs, all she could hope for now was a diplomatic miracle that would enable her husband to have a fair and transparent hearing. DM


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