Judge cautions Najwa as trial is postponed

Murder accused Najwa Petersen, now on her fourth advocate, will have to conduct her own defence if she changes her lawyer again, a Cape High Court judge warned on Wednesday.

Judge Siraj Desai delivered the warning as he postponed the trial to July 28 to enable her latest advocate, Johann Engelbrecht, to get up to speed.

Engelbrecht, a senior counsel, also represents sex-crime accused “advocate Barbie” Cezanne Visser, and has acted for Pretoria wife killer Pieter Viljoen and lion-cage murder co-accused Mark Scott-Crossley.

Najwa’s previous counsel, Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau, announced on Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the case, giving the court to understand that it was because Najwa had run out of funds.

Engelbrecht took Von Lieres’s place on Wednesday after Desai had threatened to force Najwa’s instructing attorney, Reaz Khan, to conduct her defence.

He asked Desai for a postponement to August, saying he needed time to read the court record, consult what he said would be the six to eight witnesses Najwa intends calling in her defence, and prepare himself properly.

“This is due to unfortunate circumstances and I tender my apologies to everybody concerned who will be perturbed and harmed by the postponement. I can do no better,” he said.

“But having said that, I have to bear in mind the interests of my client.”

He said he was satisfied there was no “wilfulness” involved in Najwa’s change of advocates, and that though she wanted the trial over, she also wanted the counsel of her choice, which was himself.

“This will be the last time,” he said.

Quizzed by Desai how Najwa was able to afford him when she had apparently run out of funds for Von Lieres, Engelbrecht said “proper financial instructions” were received late on Tuesday afternoon after Von Lieres quit.

However, he also implied the break-up had to do with a loss of confidence between Najwa and Von Lieres.

“The reasons are privileged,” he said.

Asked whether he would carry on with the case free of charge if Najwa’s money did run out, he told Desai that that was an ethical rule “and I’ll abide by that”.

Prosecutor Shareen Riley opposed the August date, urging a shorter delay and noting that the trial had already been pushed back six weeks when Najwa appointed Von Lieres at the last minute.

In his ruling, Desai said withdrawal of counsel from a case was happening “all too frequently” these days, disrupting court rolls and gravely prejudicing co-accused, victims’ families and the justice system itself.

“One gets the impression that it is often a stratagem employed to gain some tactical advantage,” he said.

“This situation warrants the attention of the legal profession and all other role players in the justice system.”

He said the fact that Najwa was entitled to counsel of her choice was an unimpressive argument as she had already exercised that choice three times.

She was testing the limits of the court’s indulgence.

However, he said, Engelbrecht had assured him there were legitimate reasons for Von Lieres’s withdrawal, and he accepted that assurance unreservedly.

“On balance, while meeting her requests with great reluctance in this instance, I must nevertheless place on record that if there is any change in legal representation or any other conduct which undermines the smooth functioning of this trial, the accused will be compelled to conduct her own defence and bear its consequences,” Desai said.—Sapa

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