Italian prosecutors are hoping that a former South African police officer now in a psychiatric clinic may be able to testify in Italy at alleged Mafioso Vito Palazzolo’s trial in absentia.
The police officer, Abraham Smith, broke down last week when he took the stand in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court at hearings held under an international cooperation agreement to gather testimony for the trial.
His psychologist told the court on Monday that Smith suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and is currently unfit to testify, but that his condition could improve with a change of environment.
On Tuesday, as the hearings drew to a close, magistrate Derek Winter ruled that Smith is in fact unfit to give evidence “at this juncture”, and excused him as a witness.
Palazzolo’s advocate, Jan Heunis, told the court Smith was the author of a document that led to the establishment in 1996 of the presidential investigation task unit to probe Palazzolo and his connections.
He said the since-disbanded unit had produced nothing to incriminate Palazzolo, but in the process had severely damaged his client’s reputation.
Unsubstantiated hearsay evidence and documents implicating Palazzolo in serious crimes were made public.
However, to this day he has a clean record in South Africa.
If Smith does eventually testify, Palazzolo’s South African lawyers are best equipped to cross-examine him, Heunis said.
“And we would want to cross-examine him to set the record straight once and for all, and to expose all the harmful disinformation for which he must take responsibility.”
He said he wants an assurance from Palermo Judge President Donatella Puleo, who has been at the Cape Town hearings, that he will be allowed to participate in the Palermo hearings — if only to cross-examine Smith, should he ever be willing to take the stand there.
Puleo said Heunis will have the same status in her court as one of Palazzolo’s Italian legal team has enjoyed in the Cape Town hearings — that of an expert adviser to the defence team.
Eight witnesses testified in the Cape Town hearings over a period of six days, filling 37 hour-long tapes that must now be transcribed so a written record can be sent to the Italian court.
Palazzolo’s trial, in which he faces a charge of association with the Mafia, is to resume in Palermo on December 2.
It has already dragged on for several years, during which, according to prosecutor Gaetano Paci, about 30 witnesses have been heard.
Paci said he hopes Smith will be able to testify. He said the trial will not finish this year.
Its completion will depend partly on the further investigations prosecutors will have to do in the light of the evidence gathered in South Africa.
It is unclear whether the Italian delegation — two prosecutors, a trio of judges, and Interpol officers — will return to South Africa.
The Pretoria High Court has yet to rule on a challenge by South African Broadcasting Corporation journalist Jacques Pauw to his subpoena to testify at similar hearings in Pretoria.
Puleo said on Tuesday, when Winter was considering his ruling on Smith, that the tribunal “cannot be forced to come back to South Africa for the third time”. — Sapa