Selebi trial: Recusal bid shocks observers

A third secret videotape and Judge Meyer Joffe’s irritation with Jackie Selebi’s lawyer quoting from a newspaper article were probably the catalysts for Selebi’s shock request that Joffe withdraw from his corruption trial.

Selebi’s advocate, Jaap Cilliers, sounding a bit regretful about what was to come, told Joffe on Wednesday morning that he had received instructions from Selebi to request the judge’s recusal from the case.

Cilliers will now have to argue before Joffe on Thursday next week why Selebi believes he [Joffe] is biased towards the state. If Joffe agrees to withdraw, the trial will start from scratch.

Although Joffe has been firm and at times upset with Cilliers during his cross-examination of drug dealer Glenn Agliotti, the application for Joffe’s recusal came as a shock to the state and trial observers.

According to lawyers who have appeared before Joffe previously, he has a reputation for being “strict, but fair”.

It now seems that an altercation between Cilliers and Joffe on Tuesday about a third videotape of Agliotti meeting intelligence officers and the publication of the details in City Press caused Selebi to believe he won’t receive a fair trial.

Joffe appeared perturbed when Cilliers produced the City Press article on Tuesday and asked the court’s leave to question Agliotti on it.

The article, published on the newspaper’s front page on Sunday, details an alleged recording of Agliotti meeting former spy boss Manala Manzini, his deputy Arthur Fraser and crime intelligence head Mulangi Mphego at Sandton’s Balalaika hotel in January last year.

Agliotti testified earlier he was desperate to do a deal with the state and thought the National Intelligence Agency could help him escape prosecution by the Scorpions.

According to the City Press article, Agliotti made it clear in the recording while handing over an affidavit to Mphego that he drew up the sworn statement and was keen to have a follow-up meeting with Mphego.

That, according to Cilliers, contradicts Agliotti’s earlier evidence that businesswoman Tanya Volschenk drew up the affidavit, and that it was Mphego who urged him to meet again four days later in Sandton.

Agliotti testified on Tuesday that he didn’t know the Balalaika meeting had been filmed. Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel said he was highly uncomfortable with Cilliers questioning Agliotti on the strength of a newspaper article and that he didn’t know a third secret recording existed.

Joffe said he was concerned the trial was being influenced by outside parties leaking information—such as the video recording—to the media, and that this had to be investigated.

He then told Cilliers to ask Agliotti only very narrow questions on what City Press allegedly saw.

This irked Cilliers, who wanted more detailed responses from Agliotti.

At one stage Joffe stopped Cilliers from repeatedly asking Agliotti what he had said at the Balalaika meeting.
“He has answered the question,” Joffe told Cilliers, to which he replied: “No, he hasn’t, can you read the answer back to me because I don’t have it.”

Joffe reprimanded Cilliers and reminded him that he was addressing the court. “Mister Cilliers, remember that you are addressing me, and not a witness, nor anyone else.”

Cilliers apologised to Joffe, but persisted: “He [Agliotti] lied to you. I am entitled to test his credibility.”

Joffe’s reluctance to allow detailed questions about the City Press article appeared to have been the trigger for the recusal application. However, when arguing next week, Cilliers will have to show a much broader bias towards the state to justify Joffe’s withdrawal.

The state is expected to oppose the application.

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