South Africa

LYTTELTON TEK BASE

Weapons’ theft accused denied bail, but many questions remain unanswered

An illustrative photo by David Stillman via Flickr

Twelve men arrested in connection with the theft of 19 R4 rifles from a military base will remain in custody to allow the investigation to continue. It’s still not really clear who have made the weapons to disappear, or, even more importantly, why. 

On the illegal market, an R4 assault rifle could fetch around R5,000. Those who planned and executed the theft of 19 of these weapons from the Engineering Formation at the Lyttelton Tek Base, therefore, could have made close to R100,000 – if selling these guns was what they had in mind. Also, they would have to sell it either to experts or, for a much-reduced price, to scrap metal dealers, because the closing mechanisms that enable these guns to work are still under lock and key. Those in the know say that using the guns without these is a bit like trying to drive a car without an engine.

It’s undisputed that the heist plan was an inside job. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) sources say the recording mechanism of the security cameras was tampered with. Expert knowledge is needed to salvage the footage from the server. The upside is that it might be possible to determine which date it was tampered with, and so give a clue as to when the theft might have happened. For now, it’s estimated to have been any time between September, when the last stock-take of the 300 weapons at this unit happened, and Christmas Eve, when the men were arrested. 

The attorney of the accused – some of whom appears to have been arrested for being on duty at the time when the loss of weapons was discovered – say they’re being held unnecessarily. Defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has, however, already called them “unpatriotic” and “self-serving thugs”.

“There is no direct evidence presented that any of these accused were found in possession of the firearms, or any direct evidence that anyone saw them with the weapons, that anyone saw them breaking and entering. There is no such evidence,” said Brian Plaatjies, who is representing 11 of the accused. 

Defence union Sandu erroneously claimed that the rifles were recovered in Hammanskraal. In court, the investigating officer said none of the stolen weapons have been found as yet.

The accused spent Christmas and the Day of Goodwill in military police cells. Their anxious family members were only allowed five-minute visits, although under the Constitution they are entitled to longer. 

“We were at least allowed to give them their Christmas meal,” said an anxious family member, who did not want to be named. “But we had no idea what was going on, and nobody could tell us.” 

She compared the trauma to that of a car accident, and it’s made her so absent-minded that she forgets the car keys in the ignition and one day even forgot to feed her child. 

Nine of the twelve men came to the military court in their military uniforms, which relatives brought for them from home. Three of the four officers wore the smart blazers and shoes reserved for the upper ranks, while the other uniformed ones wore camouflage and boots, even though the temperature in Centurion on Friday was above 30 degrees. A classroom with no working air-conditioning at the old Air Force Gymnasium opposite the Swartkop Museum served as Court C. Two South African flags were put up on the front bench where military judge, Lt.Col. Elizabeth Coetzer sat, and chairs and tables were arranged for the prosecutor and the defence. The 12 accused, who marched into court in a line, stood in the rest position for the duration of the proceedings so that their wives and family members could sit down in the chairs. 

When it got dark – it appears that nobody had foreseen that the arguments would continue for over five hours, from mid-afternoon until 8.30 pm – court proceedings continued by cell phone torchlight and later with an emergency flashlight. (The complex isn’t really in use anymore and the electricity had been cut off.) Car headlights had to be switched on to provide lighting outside during break times. Nothing about the set-up suggested that the men were a flight risk. They were transported in an ordinary minibus, and the military police officers guarding them didn’t carry their guns visibly. 

Judge Coetzer’s reason for denying the dozen release had nothing to do with them being a flight risk. Instead, it was aimed at buying the investigating officer another seven days and verifying the particulars of the accused. The investigating officer said “she has not visited each and every one of these accused homes to determine if the information [on file] is true or not,” the judge said. “However if one looks at the scale of the investigation, the number of accused standing before court today, one can understand that she has not had the opportunity to do so.” 

“To afford the investigating officer time to finalise the investigation and most importantly – and this is the crux – to curb the accused from the likelihood to tamper with evidence by influencing or intimidating witnesses, the court does find that it will not be in the interest of justice to release the accused from custody and thus to remand them for a further seven days,” Judge Coetzer concluded. The court will sit again next Friday (3 January) to further decide on the fate of the accused. Another option would be to move them to another unit while the investigation is happening, but this administration would take time, she said.

The 10 men arrested at work on Tuesday are: Captain D.T. Masigo; Lieutenants Masemola (the only one represented by advocate Dolphy Bopape), L. Mukhauli, S.M. Ramadi; Staff Sargeant H.G. Maarman; Sargeants. D.M. Tlokwane, B.E. Nkumenge, and E.M. Rantlhoatlhoa; Corporals P.T. Ntamela, and M.K. Dlamini. Sappers K.S. Tswai and C.L. First were picked up by military police at their homes the day after Christmas. They were charged with theft, breaking and entering, and the negligent loss of firearms. More arrests are likely to follow, and they are likely to include senior officers, the court heard. DM

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