Watchdog in urgent bid to stop South Africa from extraditing ex-Mozambican finance minister Manuel Chang

Manuel Chang, the former finance minister of Mozambique. (YouTube screengrab)

Lawyers involved in the case suspect that Pretoria might pre-empt the courts by putting Manuel Chang on a plane at 7am Wednesday morning.

A Mozambican anti-corruption watchdog has asked the Johannesburg High Court to issue an urgent order on Wednesday stopping Justice Minister Ronald Lamola from extraditing former Mozambican finance minister Manuel Chang to Mozambique.

But lawyers involved in the case suspect that a court order would come too late as they believe the South African government intends to put Chang on a plane to Maputo at 7am on Wednesday – before the court has been able to hear the application.

“This could become Bashir Two,” one lawyer said, referring to the legal drama in June 2015 when the South African government allowed the then Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, to flee South Africa in defiance of a high court order compelling the government to detain him. This was so that he could be handed over to the International Criminal Court to face genocide and other charges. 

In 2015 the High Court, Supreme Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court all ruled that the government had acted illegally by allowing Bashir to escape. 

The lawyer said the current South African government would be equally culpable if it sent Chang back to Mozambique knowing that the high court had been asked to order it not to. Chang is wanted on corruption charges both in Mozambique and in the US but many suspect he will not receive a proper trial in Mozambique. 

The lawyer said he was concerned that Lamola’s office is refusing to confirm if Chang is still in South Africa or when it intends sending him home. In a letter to the lawyers for the Mozambican watchdog body,  Forum de Monitoria do Orcamento (FMO) – Forum for Monitoring the Budget – on Monday, Lamola refused FMO’s request to reverse his decision to send Chang to Mozambique. 

He said Chang had been in jail for several years and so it would be unfair to detain him any longer. In any case, Lamola said, “the matter is in the hands of Interpol”. A justice department official confirmed this to Daily Maverick, saying Lamola was no longer able to stop the delivery of Chang to the Mozambican authorities. 

After Lamola refused to act on Monday, FMO filed an urgent application to the Johannesburg High Court on Tuesday, seeking an urgent court order stopping Lamola from sending Chang to Mozambique. It wants Chang to remain in South Africa until the High Court has had time to properly review Lamola’s decision. The FMO said Chang should be extradited to the US and not Mozambique because the Mozambican authorities had not issued a warrant for his arrest. 

FMO is an umbrella body of several Mozambican NGOs. In her affidavit to the high court seeking the urgent order, FMO’s attorney, Nicole van Deventer, noted that Lamola had taken almost two years to decide to extradite Chang to Mozambique. “Now suddenly there is an inexplicable rush to surrender Mr Chang,” she said.

Chang has been in a South African jail for almost 32 months. He was detained in transit through OR Tambo International Airport on 29 December 2018 on an arrest warrant issued by the US. The following month the US asked South Africa to extradite him to the US to face charges of fraud and corruption. It alleged that he received millions of dollars in kickbacks to approve international loans totalling about $2.2-billion in 2013 and 2014 for Mozambique to buy fishing trawlers and military patrol vessels.  

The proposed state tuna fishing project came to nothing, but Chang and many other Mozambican officials as well as officials from one of the lending banks and from the shipbuilding company that sold Mozambique the boats, allegedly got bribes.  

The US indicted Chang and others involved because it said US investors had lost large amounts of money in the fraudulent scheme. The US asked SA to extradite him in January 2019 and Mozambique followed a few days later – before it had charged him. 

In her affidavit to the Johannesburg High Court on Tuesday, Van Deventer said if the court granted FMO’s urgent request for an order stopping Lamola from extraditing Chang to Mozambique, FMO would then request a court order compelling Lamola to extradite him to the US or at least sending the matter back to Lamola to reconsider his decision. 

Van Deventer raised doubts about the sincerity of Mozambique’s stated intention to prosecute Chang. She noted that Lamola had explained in a press statement on Monday that he had opposed the decision by his predecessor Michael Masutha to extradite Chang to Mozambique in  May 2019.

That was mainly because Mozambique had not then indicted Chang and he still enjoyed immunity from prosecution as a member of Parliament. Since then the Mozambican authorities had lifted Chang’s immunity and indicted him on several charges, Lamola said.

But Van Deventer said that Mozambique had still not issued a warrant for Chang’s arrest and so if he was returned to Mozambique he would remain a flight risk. She added that Lamola had not provided proof that Mozambique had really indicted him or that it had lifted his immunity against prosecution. 

She added that the law required that Chang should be extradited to the country which had requested extradition first – the US – unless there were compelling reasons not to do so, which Lamola had not provided.

She said Lamola had an obligation under South African and international law to combat corruption and that this obligation would be best served by extraditing Chang to the US.

Meanwhile, in Maputo on Tuesday, the judge in the trial of 19 other officials implicated in the same hidden debts scam announced that Chang would be called as a witness. 

Chang was not on the original long list of witnesses. But the Mozambique Bar Association, which is assisting the public prosecutor, in the case asked for Chang to be called as a witness and this request was immediately accepted by the defence. DM


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