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Manuel Chang denied bail in New York over flight-risk fears

Manuel Chang denied bail in New York over flight-risk fears
Manuel Chang, the former minister of finance of Mozambique. Illustrative image: Ryan Rayburn; Pixabay

Judge says the former finance minister could flee to Mozambique’s UN mission if released.

Former Mozambican finance minister Manuel Chang, who was extradited from South Africa to the US on Wednesday to face fraud and money laundering charges, was denied bail in a New York district court on Thursday. 

Hoping to be free at last after more than four years in prison in South Africa, Chang pleaded not guilty to the charges before district court judge Nicholas Garaufis and offered to post a bond of $1-million if granted bail.

But Judge Garaufis denied bail, agreeing with prosecutors that he was a flight risk and could escape the charges by entering Mozambique’s UN mission in Manhattan.

“The evidence regarding his guilt on the face of it is strong,” Garaufis said, ordering that Chang remain in custody. 

Chang’s American lawyers are nevertheless hoping that the district court will still throw out the case against him on the grounds that it has  been more than four years since he was arrested in South Africa.

This delay has prejudiced Chang by damaging his chances of getting a fair trial, his attorney, Adam Ford, told Garaufis in a letter last month.

He asked Garaufis for permission to move to dismiss the indictment because the prosecution’s delay had violated Chang’s right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution. 

Ford told Daily Maverick on Thursday that the judge had agreed to a hearing on whether or not to dismiss the case against Chang because of the delay. 

In his letter to Garaufis last month, Ford said that since Chang’s arrest in South Africa in December 2018, “he has been incarcerated in South Africa in appalling conditions, including solitary confinement”. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Manuel Chang case shows how public interest litigation can further accountability for economic crimes

“He has had limited contact with his own family and can only speak to them through a glass partition. The South African government has also failed to meet Mr Chang’s medical needs. He has an injured knee, but he has been unable to receive physical therapy during his detention. Moreover, the South African authorities have failed to provide Mr Chang with a low-sodium diet, even though he has high blood pressure.”

And the competing requests for Change’s extradition from the US and Mozambique had “trapped him in a Kafkaesque labyrinth of never-ending administrative and court proceedings”, Ford said. This referred to the South African government twice ordering that Chang should be extradited to Mozambique and South African courts overruling the government both times and eventually ordering him to be extradited to the US instead.  

Ford also claimed that although the Department of Justice had requested Chang’s extradition more than four years ago, it had “lost interest in seeking his extradition since 2019” when a jury in the same Brooklyn court had acquitted Chang’s co-defendant, Jean Boustani.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Manuel Chang finally on way to the US after FBI kept waiting due to red tape delays

Boustani had worked for Privinvest, the Abu-Dhabi based ship-building company which built a fleet of tuna-fishing boats and patrol vessels for the Mozambique government. Chang, when still finance minister, secretly signed government guarantees in 2013 and 2014 for loans totalling about $2-billion to buy the vessels. But the US indictment against Chang, Boustani and others alleged that the whole project was just a scam to elicit the loans so they could all siphon off bribes. 

Intends to ‘fight’

In the district court on Thursday, Ford denied that Chang had received a bribe and said he had signed off on the loans in his official capacity. “He intends to stay here and fight these charges.”

The US indicted Chang on 19 December  2018, claiming jurisdiction because it said he had defrauded US citizens who had invested in the $2-billion in loans to buy the boats. Ford noted that the US Department of Justice had written to the South African government two days later, requesting Chang’s arrest. Which it did when he flew into OR Tambo International airport on 29 December, en route to Dubai for a holiday. 

Ford said Chang was confident that he would be acquitted of all charges in the New York court, just as Boustani had been acquitted in December 2019 on the same charges. 

“As he has maintained throughout this process, the charges against him are meritless,” Ford said. He noted that on 24 August 2022 Chang had explicitly stated in a court filing in South Africa that he consented to his extradition to either the US or Mozambique, “and emphatically requested an expeditious end to this protracted litigation”.

The delay in bringing Chang to trial had prejudiced him by potentially impairing his defence including because of memory loss by potential witnesses of events that occurred a decade ago. Chang had also been subjected to protracted anxiety, especially because of his poor treatment in prison.

And Ford blamed the US for the delay, saying it had deliberately chosen South Africa as the place to have Chang arrested, despite knowing, even from its own human rights reports, that South Africa’s judicial system was overburdened and lengthy pretrial detention was common. DM

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