Did Palazzolo blackmail Pik?
Chiara Carter investigates a link between the Mafia boss and the ex- foreign minister
The investigation into alleged Mafia moneyman Vito Palazzolo has led to a bizarre hunt for photographs of former foreign minister Pik Botha in bed with a black woman.
The presidential investigation task unit’s acting head, Peter Viljoen, said he had several statements from reliable witnesses about the photographs, which are said to be in the possession of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Attempts to get the photographs from the NIA had not been successful.
Botha said he had been guarded 24 hours a day when he was minister.
“How could I have been caught in a compromising position if I was watched all the time?” he asked.
Palazzolo’s lawyer, Norman Snitcher, said his client had no personal knowledge which was damaging to Botha.
Viljoen has copies of other photographs of Botha with Palazzolo. Police say they knew each other before Palazzolo gained residence in South Africa. The photographs, alleged to have been used by Palazzolo as leverage on Botha, are part of a dossier on Palazzolo’s links to prominent South Africans the unit has collected.
Snitcher said his client knew Botha but it was “impertinent” to suggest he had personal knowledge which could be used to Palazzolo’s advantage or which could be prejudicial to Botha.
Botha said he met Palazzolo once, at a National Party meeting in the Eastern Cape where he was introduced to him by MP Peet de Pontes. He challenged Viljoen to produce the photographs showing him and Palazzolo together.
Palazzolo entered South Africa illegally in the 1980s. He was given South African citizenship in 1995 although he featured on Interpol’s most wanted list. He previously had close links with NP politicians and has made moves to woo members of the African National Congress.
Palazzolo has a thriving business empire in Southern Africa - from bottled water and farming to claims that he has diamond concessions. His trial on charges of money laundering and harbouring criminals is scheduled to start in his absence in Italy later this month.
Snitcher said Palazzolo felt he was the victim of a smear campaign and any suggestion he held a senior position in the Cosa Nostra/Mafia was denied.
Palazzolo’s links to politicians as well as the identity of shadowy informers and members of his inner circle will be revealed next month when the trial of the unit’s suspended commander, Director Andr Lincoln, is scheduled to begin.
Lincoln, one of the most senior former ANC members in the South African Police Service (SAPS), is charged with 46 counts of fraud and corruption, relating mostly to the use of cars, secret houses and equipment, and the payment of informers by the covert unit.
Lincoln was instructed to investigate syndicates. He gained Palazzolo’s trust and became part of his social circle. Affidavits collected by the Western Cape’s violent crimes head, Director Leonard Knipe, include statements by Palazzolo and opens the way for him to be questioned in court.
Palazzolo has claimed Lincoln failed to repay R11 000 from a trip the two made to Angola where, according to intelligence reports, Palazzolo has business interests. Lincoln is accused of fraudulently claiming this money from the state.
Snitcher said Palazzolo did not have diamond concessions co-owned by prominent Angolan politicians and security officers as named in intelligence reports.
Palazzolo is one of 76 potential state witnesses whose names have not previously been made public. The witness list features SAPS top brass including National Commissioner George Fivaz, crime intelligence chief in the Western Cape Jeremy Veary, correctional services Commissioner Khulekani Sithole, members of Lincoln’s unit and informers.
Not listed but one of several people Lincoln is forbidden to contact in terms of his bail conditions is ANC MP Reggie Oliphant. Lincoln claims Oliphant called his wife recently and warned that his life was in danger.
Lincoln signed a letter clearing Palazzolo of criminal activities - a move which now seems might have been a ploy to lull Palazzolo’s suspicions after information about the unit’s inquiries leaked to Italy.
It now transpires that Lincoln canvassed the contents of the letter with his unit and is said to have received approval from a senior figure whose identity he refuses to reveal.
Another earlier letter from a very senior SAPS official giving Palazzolo a clean bill of health has surfaced. Like Lincoln’s letter, this January 1997 letter from the then head of organised crime, Assistant Commissioner Neels Venter, was a response to a request from Palazzolo’s lawyer, Cyril Prisman.
According to SAPS sources, mistrust of Venter was one reason the unit’s operations were so secret that not even Fivaz was fully briefed. Instead, the unit seems to have answered partly to political bosses including Minister of Safety and Security Sydney Mufamadi. This may mean these politicians will be called to testify if Lincoln is to prove the covert nature of his operations.
Snitcher said there were no personal links between Palazzolo and Venter.
The Western Cape attorney general has received a docket containing details of an investigation into Lincoln’s claim that Cyril Beeka, allegedly a friend of Palazzolo, visited him twice last month allegedly to set up a meeting with Palazzolo.
Lincoln says Beeka told him Palazzolo had instructions from high up in the government to discuss this matter and to ensure charges were dropped. Beeka has declined to comment because the matter is under investigation.
Snitcher said his client had no knowledge of this matter and his only link with Beeka was that he provided security at a family wedding two years ago.
Lincoln has so far failed to get state funding for his defence and faces a catch-22 situation: he won’t get the nod from the state attorney unless he provides explicit details of his defence and he fears that to do so will jeopardise his case.
A senior assistant in the Western Cape Office of the State Attorney, Patrick Arendse, said the SAPS head office had approved funding Lincoln’s defence and asked the state attorney to approve his legal fees.
However, government regulations give the state attorney the right to decide whether or not to fund the defence of a state employee. Where the state is the complainant, policy tends towards refusing to pay unless the accused provides information indicating he had been acting on behalf of the state when he committed the offence. Lincoln has not yet done this.
Lincoln’s lawyer, Nazeem Ebrahim, denied this, saying his client had provided details when he applied for assistance with legal fees in July this year. Ebrahim said sufficient facts had been supplied to approve funding Lincoln’s defence and discuss the need for senior legal counsel as well as a private attorney.
Problems arose much later in the bureaucratic loop when Arendse demanded a plea for each charge. “My client’s opinion was that if he were to go through a charge-by-charge synopsis, he had no guarantee the documentation would not be compromised,” Ebrahim said.
This week Arendse received a letter from the office of his Pretoria counterpart saying they were now closing the file. Ebrahim said it was iniquitous that people from the apartheid era were given state funding but this was denied to Lincoln.
Arendse acknowledged that in a situation like Lincoln’s, operatives who found themselves accused of crimes faced an impasse.
“It’s unfortunate but my hands are tied. The only other option is for them to try to get the money back after the case is over,” Arendse said.