/ 9 October 2009

Selebi trial: Inside gangstas’ paradise

If only a quarter of what Glenn ­Agliotti told the South Gauteng High Court this week is true, we live in a gangsters’ paradise.

Agliotti’s evidence would easily give any Sopranos episode a run for its money. The alleged plot is classic and dirty. The Mafia boss corrupts the top cop. The Mafia boss fuels the top cop’s extravagant lifestyle and showers him with clothing and cash.

The top cop protects the Mafia boss against arrest and recruits other cops to his syndicate. A rich man dies. The case is fixed and the blood trail runs dry. A good cop arrives on the scene. He arrests the Mafia boss for murder. And Don Corleone begins to sing …

Agliotti was always going to be the state’s key witness, but it was also feared that he was also its weakest link — that he would be a sleazy, loudmouth witness with the credibility of a brick.

But Agliotti has mostly been composed and eloquent, speaking in the same controlled tone about the murder of Brett Kebble and his dislike for Aigner shirts. Casually, he has spoken about his alleged corrupt pact with Jackie Selebi, the man who was until recently commander-in-chief of South Africa’s 150 000-strong police force.

Agliotti could have been lying for three consecutive days about every meeting, dinner party, shopping excursion and cent he gave Selebi.

But assume that he was speaking the truth — that he had the top cop on his payroll for a number of years. What are the implications?

Were we a criminal state where the head of law enforcement was for sale to the highest bidder?

Were ­senior police officers part of a syndicate to protect and further the interests of a self-confessed drug dealer?

If so, how deep-rooted is corruption in the South African Police Service and can normal South ­Africans ever be expected to trust the men and women in blue again?

And former president Thabo Mbeki, who protected Selebi at all costs, will have some serious questions to answer if the court finds Selebi guilty.

In courtroom 4B of the old Johannesburg High Court, presiding Judge Meyer Joffe is strict and meticulous. He was at pains to explain his attitude to the trial to chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel and Selebi’s advocate Jaap Cilliers on day one — the trial must run and no unnecessary badgering would be tolerated.

So what is the state’s strategy to convict Selebi?

Calling Agliotti as his first witness was always going to be a calculated risk for Nel, but Tuesday and Wednesday went well for the state.

Journalists were eating from Agliotti’s hand with his countless tales of how he ‘bribed” Selebi with envelopes of cash and Aigner jackets. In return he had Selebi at his beck and call — all at a very expensive tag for his ‘clients”.

Agliotti testified that these were mainly the Kebble family and Zimbabwean businessman Billy Rautenbach, who respectively paid him $1-million and $100 000 for dinner invites with Selebi.

Part of this money, according to Agliotti, also found its way to Selebi’s pocket in numerous parcels collected from Agliotti’s Midrand office.

Nel often asked Agliotti to explain how he came to be a state witness, preparing the ground for a barrage from Cilliers about the Scorpions’ methodology in preparing the case.

In getting to Selebi the Scorpions started small — nailing minor drug dealers who were part of the syndicate, making deals and dishing out plea bargains in exchange for affidavits and firm commitments to testify against the gangster above them on the Mafia ladder.

The state wants us to believe that Selebi was on top. Cilliers has told the court that the Scorpions cut deals with devils in their ‘malicious” attempt to take his client out because he supported shutting down the Scorpions and claims to have discovered evidence of wrongdoing against consecutive prosecution heads Bulelani Ngcuka and Vusi Pikoli.

Agliotti’s composure cracked during cross-examination by Cilliers on Thursday. Agliotti admitted having an innocent relationship with Selebi, who regarded him as an ‘international businessman of standing”, in Cilliers’s words. This followed an emotional breakdown by the drug dealer in the witness box while testifying about his run-in with senior officials of the National Intelligence Agency and crime intelligence, to whom he had provided an affidavit, accusing the Scorpions of conspiring against Selebi.

Agliotti admitted lying under oath when questioned by Nel about the veracity of claims in the statement.

‘What was the purpose of the affidavit?” asked Nel. Agliotti responded: ‘I had been arrested and put in the Sandton cells for almost a month. I was angry, I was in jail, I was under house arrest … I was frustrated and angry at the time.”

Shortly thereafter he became emotional, his voice cracking. ‘M’Lord, it’s not easy being here. I don’t like [chief prosecutor] Mr [Gerrie] Nel and I say that with respect. The accused doesn’t like Mr Nel and I don’t know many people who do. I didn’t want to be here to testify against my then-friend and the accused.”

Agliotti was seen wiping tears from his eyes before Joffe adjourned court proceedings for 30 minutes. Selebi chuckled, telling journalists that Agliotti would need a ‘box of tissues” during cross-examination.

But no further tissues were needed on Thursday afternoon when Agliotti agreed to the majority of propositions put to him by ­Cilliers, including that he is innocent of ­Kebble’s murder.

‘I get the impression that they are keeping the sword [the murder charge] over your head … to get you to testify against the accused,” ­Cilliers said.

‘I agree, but I already testified in chief,” responded Agliotti, looking regretful for a moment, but then perhaps realising that he is too far down the road already, finish and klaar.