/ 20 May 2008

Judge warns Najwa after withdrawal of advocate

A judge has issued a stern warning to murder accused Najwa Petersen after learning on Tuesday she had dismissed her advocate just as she was supposed to start presenting her case for a not-guilty ruling.

”We can’t be held to ransom by the whims of one accused,” Cape High Court judge Siraj Desai said.

Najwa’s move followed reports that her family was struggling to pay legal bills nearing the R3-million mark.

Senior counsel Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau was the third advocate who has represented Najwa since her arrest last year on a charge of killing her entertainer husband, Taliep.

At the start of proceedings in the Cape High Court on Tuesday morning, Von Lieres told Desai: ”My mandate in this matter [was] terminated last Friday, and in the circumstances I request leave to withdraw.”

He said his instructing attorney, Reaz Khan, had right of appearance in the high court, and would take over the case.

Desai asked Von Lieres whether he was withdrawing for ”lack of instructions”, a euphemism for lack of funds.

”Yes … lack of instructions,” replied Von Lieres.

Desai asked Von Lieres whether he would have any objection if the court appointed him to act pro deo for Najwa, adding that it used to be the ”salutary practice” among advocates that if a client ran out of money, the advocate would continue the case for free.

Von Lieres said he had not considered this possibility, but would do so.

He left the advocates’ bench, and his place was taken by the youthful Khan, his black toga held together at the front by a paper clip to cover the fact that he was wearing a blue shirt rather than the black waistcoat and white shirt that courts insists on.

Desai told him that Von Lieres’s dismissal would result in ”severe prejudice” to justice as a whole, not just to Najwa.

”The prosecution is prejudiced, the court is prejudiced. Under these circumstances, any further indulgence would be stretching the kindness the criminal justice system affords an accused,” he said.

He said the case had been expected to continue for nine months, and one would have expected Khan, who was a member of an experienced firm of attorneys, to have secured sufficient financial cover for that period.

The fact that he did not was unacceptable, and led to the conclusion that Von Lieres’s departure was a ”tactical withdrawal”.

”My lord, there was no mala fides on my part,” said Khan.

Desai told Khan he intended to order him to carry on with the case in Von Lieres’s place, but Khan, after a hurried consultation with Najwa in the dock, said she insisted she wanted an advocate.

In any case, Khan said, he was not in a position to proceed immediately.

He asked for a postponement to Friday.

”Will you be ready to proceed on Friday?” asked Desai.

”My lord, if the court insists,” Khan said.

Desai postponed the hearing to 10am on Wednesday, adding that the court could not ”under any circumstances” permit justice to be held up unduly.

Khan confirmed to the South African Press Association after the hearing that Von Lieres’s mandate was terminated because of a lack of funds.

Legal sources say a senior counsel’s bill can easily top R30 000 per court day.

”It’s all part and parcel of their games and stuff,” said Taliep’s brother, Igsaan, outside the court afterwards.

”We as Taliep’s family want justice to be done. We want the case to be finished.”

The trial was due to start on March 3, but Najwa changed advocates, appointing Von Lieres, only days before, and it got under way only on April 7. — Sapa