/ 18 February 2011

Dewani case: How grieving husband became suspect

Dewani Case: How Grieving Husband Became Suspect

The police moved swiftly. The murder of honeymooner Anni Dewani in a township on the outskirts of Cape Town had shocked the world and the country’s Hawks crime unit was under intense pressure to bring the killers to justice.

Within days police had arrested two suspects. A week after the murder they had a third and an amazing story was being told. This, it was alleged, had been no regular carjacking and robbery but rather an extraordinary plot masterminded by Anni’s husband, the British businessman Shrien Dewani, to have his wife killed just days after they were married in a lavish ceremony in Mumbai.

It is now almost 100 days since the murder on November 13 last year. The South Africans want Dewani extradited and believe they have evidence that he ought to return to the country to answer. The family of Swedish-born Anni also want him to go back and answer the claims.

Dewani, who comes from Westbury-on-Trym, a suburb of Bristol, told police the taxi he and his wife were travelling in was hijacked at an intersection in Gugulethu township by two men, one of them armed with a gun. Dewani said the taxi driver was let out soon afterwards and he was then “ordered” out. His wife’s body was found the next day in the abandoned taxi. Police say a phone, bracelet, watch and handbag were missing.

Dewani’s supporters insist it is “ludicrous” to suggest that within hours of arriving in South Africa he had arranged a hit on his wife.

Now a Guardian investigation has found allegations from lawyers for the two alleged killers in South Africa that they were tortured by police. One of the men insists his account, alleging Dewani was involved, was “suggested” to him by the police and his lawyer also claims a crucial identity parade was flawed.

In addition, the Guardian has seen police papers that show how quickly — within 36 hours — detectives appeared to believe and accept the vital testimony of the third man, taxi driver Zola Tongo, who is serving a reduced sentence for his part in the murder in exchange for his testimony against Dewani.

As Dewani waits on bail in the UK for his next extradition hearing, the Guardian investigation refocuses attention on South Africa’s police force and its controversial national commissioner, General Bheki Cele, who faces calls to resign after branding Dewani a “monkey” and appearing to prejudge his guilt.

The body of Anni Dewani (28) was found in the back of Tongo’s taxi on the morning of Sunday November 14 last year. She had been killed by a single gunshot wound.

Detective Captain Paul Hendrikse, an officer of 25 years’ experience at the directorate for priority crime investigations — nicknamed the Hawks — threw huge resources at the investigation.

Police allege that the fingerprints of an unemployed man, Xolile Mngeni, were swiftly found in the taxi. Mngeni (26) was arrested on the Tuesday after the murder and, according to the police, confessed the same day. He later named another unemployed man, Mziwamadoda Qwabe, 25, as his accomplice.

Qwabe was arrested on the Thursday and police say he alleged the hijacking was faked as part of a plot. By that time Dewani was back in the UK, having flown back with his wife’s body.

Police abuse
In interviews with the Guardian this week, lawyers for Qwabe and Mngeni — who both face trial over the murder allegations — said their clients had been abused.

Qwabe’s lawyer, Thabo Nogemane, said: “I am instructed that some unknown police officer assaulted him by means of a big torch. He was hit all over his body. The police in South Africa only hit in such a way that there are no marks, no evidence.

“He said the statement was a suggestion put to him by the police. They already had the allegations so they told him: ‘Just sign here’. I wouldn’t refer to it as a confession, just a statement.”

Nogemane said his client had an alibi. “They [the police] were under pressure; they had to act quickly and get information. They arrested the wrong people.”

Almost 300 deaths in police custody were recorded in 2009-10 by South Africa’s Independent Complaints Directorate. Seven people were “tortured” to death, the ICD found. Amnesty International is also concerned at allegations of police torture in South Africa — including suffocation and electric shock. Mary Rayner, Amnesty’s South Africa researcher, said: “There are very serious incidents occurring involving specialised crime units. The confidence with which these methods are used suggests a worrying feeling of licence.”

Vusi Tshabalala, Mngeni’s lawyer, told the Guardian that his client had also been abused: “In the process of interrogating him, police would physically assault him with fists and use a plastic bag to suffocate him. He was frightened. He was angry.”

Tshabalala believes the police used “irregular methods” because they were under pressure to solve such a high-profile crime. The country had been delighted that the Soccer World Cup last summer had shone such a positive light on South Africa. “Now we have something like this happening to foreign citizens,” said Tshabalala.

Cele undoubtedly had South Africa’s public image in mind the day after Anni Dewani’s body was found.

“It’s appalling that the actions of one or two thugs should bring our entire country into disrepute in the eyes of the world,” he said. “South Africa hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually without any incident, as was proved during the 2010 Fifa World Cup.”

With about 18 000 murders and 50 000 rapes in South Africa every year, crime is a huge issue. As is police integrity. Last year Jackie Selebi, the former police National Commissioner and an ex-president of Interpol, was jailed for 15 years for corruption.

Cele has demanded that his officers be allowed to use deadly force, raising fears of a “shoot to kill” policy redolent of the apartheid era.

His most striking public pronouncement on the Dewani case came when he seemed to assert the British man’s guilt. “A monkey came all the way from London to have his wife murdered here,” he told reporters. “Shrien thought we South Africans were stupid when he came all the way to kill his wife in our country.”

William Booth, chairperson of the criminal law committee of the Law Society of South Africa, described that intervention as “bizarre and ridiculous”. He said: “The national commissioner should be seen to be objective. My view is that those comments can jeopardise the prosecution’s case and the extradition proceedings.”

Dianne Kohler Barnard, shadow police minister for the Democratic Alliance, is leading calls for Cele’s dismissal. “The national commissioner has made a number of very bizarre comments in relation to the case,” she told the Guardian.

“While I have every confidence that should Shrien Dewani come back to this country he would receive a fair trial, Bheki Cele’s comments have done a lot of harm to this country and will be utilised by his team to foil the extradition attempt.”

Most observers in South Africa agree that Cele’s “monkey” comments should not be taken as racist and few think the pursuit of Dewani is racially motivated.

Indeed, Tongo’s lawyer, William Da Grass, argued that the racism in the case came from UK critics who have attacked South Africa’s police and judicial system.

Da Grass was scathing of the involvement of the PR guru Max Clifford, who was hired by the Dewani family when Shrien returned to the UK and the family found themselves besieged by the media.

Clifford has launched strong attacks on the way Shrien’s case has been handled. But Da Grass said: “We don’t have a jury system. Cele’s rantings have no effect on the bench. We have a proudly independent judiciary. Max Clifford is not doing Shrien Dewani any favours in the eyes of South Africa.”

Whatever the truth of the torture claims — and the South African police deny them — there are inconsistencies and puzzles in the stories of the three South Africans implicated in the plot.

Hendrikse’s version of events was detailed in a statement read out in a South African court. It claims Qwabe, who was said to have driven the hijacked taxi, said he was “scared and nervous” when he heard the single shot that killed Anni. He pulled the car over and abandoned it.

The Guardian has seen a police record of one interview with Qwabe (which did not make it into Hendrikse’s statement) in which he said the kidnappers had “ordered” Shrien Dewani out of the car — rather than telling him it was time to get out as part of their plot.

In the same record a police officer said Qwabe “further alleges that they had not planned to kill the deceased but rather planned to con Zola by dumping the lady and the car and taking the money Zola would have left in the car for them”.

It implies there was some sort of plot, but the claim muddies the waters by suggesting the alleged kidnappers had not planned to kill Anni. The nature of the wound also backs up the idea that Anni was accidentally shot. The bullet went through her hand before hitting her neck.

Qwabe’s lawyer, Nogemane, also claims an identity parade involving his client was flawed. “The ID parade had about 15 people and two witnesses. Only one witness pointed out my client. But he already knew Mr Qwabe so in my view it was a self-defeating exercise.”

The police say two witnesses put Qwabe, Mngeni and Tongo together on the afternoon of the murder — and both picked them out at the identity parade.

What of the taxi driver, Zola Tongo? As evidence of his involvement in the murder stacked up, he walked into a police station and offered to admit his part in the crime in exchange for a reduced sentence.

The Guardian has seen police investigation papers that show how quickly the terms of the plea bargain were reached. Tongo (31) arrived at the police station at noon on 20 November — a week after the hijacking. By Sunday evening police had worked out a reduced sentence.

Plea bargain
A note from a senior police officer said: “In terms of the plea agreement it was agreed that he would be sentenced to 25 years imprisonment of which seven years would be suspended conditionally for five years in return he will make a full disclosure of his participation in the crime and agree to testify against Shrien Dewani.”

Ironically, on Monday November 22, the day after the deal was done, an interview with Tongo’s lawyer, Da Grass, appeared in a South African newspaper in which he maintained his client was an innocent victim.

Events were clearly moving rapidly. Asked by the Guardian this week why Tongo had changed his story, Da Grass said: “The weight of the evidence against him. I don’t think we had much of a chance. We could have gone to trial, infuriated the judge and got close to a hundred years.”

The South African case against Dewani has emerged in a series of court hearings in the UK. They want to know why he hired Tongo on arriving at the airport in Cape Town when the hotel the couple were to stay at — the five-star Cape Grace — had an airport transfer service. Why did the couple go with Tongo to a notorious township like Gugulethu? Why was Dewani not harmed by the hijackers?

The police revealed they had CCTV footage showing Dewani and Tongo meeting twice on the eve of the murder — and afterwards of Dewani handing over a package said to contain Tongo’s payment of R1 000 for allegedly arranging the hit.

Away from the courts, claims about Dewani’s private life were made. The allegations are strongly denied and Dewani is taking legal action over them.

Supporters of the Dewanis say there are “plausible” answers to the questions raised over Dewani’s behaviour. The honeymoon to Cape Town was arranged at the last minute and so no airport transfer had been arranged. Anyway, Dewani had travelled extensively in India and East Africa, so would not have hesitated to use a local taxi driver who seemed respectable and whose vehicle was clean and new. They ended up in Gugulethu having agreed that Tongo would act as their guide, in effect putting themselves in his hands.

Dewani’s supporters believe Anni may have been sexually assaulted — though the police say there is no evidence of this — which could explain why the hijackers forced him from the taxi.

Grand wedding
The CCTV footage could also be explained. The discussions before the hijacking involved them talking about plans for the next few days, Dewani’s supporters claim. The footage of the package being handed over was Dewani paying Tongo for his services as a driver.

There have also been claims that the Dewanis’ marriage was not a happy one. But friends insist the couple were content and normal. Shrien and Anni, a product designer, were brought together through mutual friends. They met at a coffee bar in London and their first date was a trip to the musical The Lion King.

The wedding in Mumbai was a grand three-day affair attended by 300 guests featuring elephants and an altar dressed to look like the Taj Mahal. Friends of Dewani say the couple had had “tiffs” and “rows” but seemed very happy.

Dewani’s friends come back to the same question: why would Dewani have wanted his wife dead? There could be no financial gain — there was no life insurance policy that Dewani stood to gain from. The couple were in love and had planned to spend the rest of their lives together.

Anni’s family say waiting for the extradition is their “torture”. “We don’t understand why Shrien doesn’t simply get on a plane and go and tell his side of the story,” Anni’s uncle, Ashok, said.

Dewani’s supporters point out that he is at home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His family declined to comment and are not criticising the South African authorities or judiciary. A spokesperson said the family was “confident that Shrien’s name will be cleared”.

Pankaj Pandaya, an old family friend and the treasurer of the Bristol Hindu Temple, believes the Dewanis were simply pinpointed as a young, rich couple and targeted by criminals trying to make an easy buck: “Shrien is 150% innocent. I have known him since he was a boy. He is intelligent, respectable and religious. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Pandaya believes it is “illogical” to imagine he would have gone through the “charade” of organising a lavish wedding, then arranged a hit within a few minutes of arriving in Cape Town. “He goes to the first guy he meets and asks him to help him kill his wife? It doesn’t make sense.”

Legal process
The next stage in the legal process takes place on Friday February 25 when the two South African men accused of murdering Anni Dewani, Mziwamadoda Qwabe and Xolile Mngeni, appear before a regional court in Wynberg, a suburb of Cape Town.

It is thought a decision will be made then whether to prosecute the two or try to wait for when and if Shrien Dewani is extradited.

There are no juries in South Africa. Given the country’s traumatic racial history, many believe the notion of an individual being fairly tried by his peers is not yet realistic.

The majority of criminal cases are dealt with by the district court. More serious offences go to the regional court, presided over by a magistrate.

If extradited, Dewani would probably make his first appearance in a regional court but his case is so high profile and of such public interest that it would be transferred to the high court, in which taxi driver Zola Tongo was sentenced. Here the case is heard by one judge who nominates two lay assessors, usually prominent members of the public, to help with issues of fact, not of law.

The fact that there are no juries have led to legal experts arguing that intemperate comments asserting that Dewani is guilty and slurs printed in newspapers or published on the internet would not affect his chances of having a fair trial.

At the last UK court hearing, it emerged that as well as challenging whether he could get a fair trial, Dewani’s legal team would bring up:

  • Prison conditions in South Africa
  • His physical and mental condition
  • Whether he is able to participate meaningfully in the proceedings
  • A possible abuse of process and conduct of the case

A three-day extradition hearing is due to take place from May 3 in London to determine whether Dewani should be extradited. – guardian.co.uk