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Key witnesses quit arms deal probe, citing 'second agenda'

Sarah Evans

Three arms deal critics have pulled out of the Seriti commission, saying there is evidence to suggest the probe is geared in the state’s favour.

Three witnesses have pulled out of the arms deal commission, saying that the inquiry is leaning towards discrediting witnesses and finding in the state's favour. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Three arms deal critics and phase two witnesses, Andrew Feinstein, Hennie Van Vuuren and Paul Holden, have pulled out of the arms deal commission, citing “fatal concerns” with the way the commission has been run.

The three, represented at the commission by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), announced their decision on Thursday.

In making the announcement, the three also said they have information which shows that the commission has not yet reviewed or even indexed thousands of documents in its possession stemming from investigations into the deal by the Scorpions and the Hawks.

The critics said they could no longer co-operate with a commission “so deeply compromised that its primary outcome will be to cover up the facts”.

The three have produced several books on the R70-billion South African arms deal, and have been instrumental in researching the global arms industry.

In February, the three released a statement urging the commission’s continuation. 

But recent events have changed their minds.

The three were scheduled to give evidence, under subpoena, during the commission’s second phase, which is currently hearing evidence from whistleblowers. But recent events, coupled with the recent resignation from the commission of two evidence leaders, advocates Barry Skinner and Carol Sibiya, have prompted Feinstein and his colleagues’ exit from the commission.

The three cited four key reasons why they would no longer participate in the commission.

Evidence, exclusion and access
Firstly, they pointed to a ruling made by the commission’s chairperson, Judge Willie Seriti, during the evidence of Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier. Seriti ruled that witnesses could not give evidence based on documents that they themselves had not written.

“The implication of this ruling is that only those who have been involved in the arms deal can introduce evidence. How the commission intends to discover the truth by only hearing from the participants in the deal is a mystery,” they said.

Secondly, the commission has consistently failed to provide them with access to relevant documents necessary for their participation in the commission, said Holden, Van Vuuren and Feinstein. “We have attempted to resolve this issue during the last 18 months through more than 10 letters to the commission. Our latest request, sent on August 15, has still not been responded to.”

Thirdly, the commission has refused to admit “key documents”. For example, the draft auditor general’s report and a damning report into arms dealer, Ferrostaal, by international law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, have been rejected by the commission. Specifically, the Debevoise & Plimpton report details illicit payments to South African officials, conflicts of interest and other irregularities.

In their resignation letter, Skinner and Sibiya cited the non-admission of this report as particularly problematic.

Second agenda
Lastly, Feinstein, Van Vuuren and Holden said information from those who have resigned from the commission – and the commission’s own conduct – suggest that it has no intention of properly investigating the arms deal.

“There is evidence to suggest that the commission is following a second agenda,” the three critics said. “Namely, to discredit crucial witnesses and find favour in the state and arms corporation’s version of events. We have discovered that the commission has not bothered to review or even index all the documents in its possession.

“It is now nearly three years since the commission was appointed. If the commission still intends to examine, analyse and use these crucial documents, it is unclear how it will be able to do so within the time limit of its current mandate. The commission has also failed to collect a number of equally crucial documents from international sources,” they said.

The three called for the dissolution of the commission and for an independent, criminal investigation of the arms deal. “We have devoted many years to exposing the wrongdoing at the heart of the arms deal because we believe that the public, who financed the deal, has the right to know,” the critics said. “Our commitment to establishing the truth remains undiminished.”


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