OR Tambo heist case still in limbo

The court case over the brazen 2006 OR Tambo International Airport heist has been delayed again after more than 50 remands to date. On Tuesday, eight accused again stood before the South Gauteng High Court judge, who postponed the case once more, this time because of the illness of one of the accused.

One of the suspects, Uakeraije Maundu, has been incarcerated and awaiting sentencing for seven years, making him the longest-held remand detainee in Johannesburg’s Diepkloof Prison.
The story has received massive media coverage and gained public attention with every subsequent twist and one wonders why proceedings have taken so long.

The case reads like a script for a thriller: a daring heist at OR Tambo by a gang of 25 that stripped a London cargo plane of R100-million in foreign currency. The robbers, who escaped through the so-called Thabo Mbeki gate at the airport, were arrested by the South African Police Service within days of the robbery and some of the loot was recovered.

But what appeared to be one of the police’s finest achievements soon turned out to be one of their most embarrassing. About R14-million of the recovered money was stolen from a walk-in safe on the premises of the North Rand serious and violent crime unit in Benoni. The alleged culprits included three police officers.

The story continued to gain in intrigue after five witnesses were killed shortly after the accused were arrested. According to a WikiLeaks entry of a cable from the United States’ Pretoria Embassy in 2006, Paul O’Sullivan, the former head of security at Airports Company South Africa, claimed that a criminal syndicate at the airport was responsible.
The ring included police, customs, immigration and security officials, as well as cleaning staff, baggage handlers and airline staff. O’Sullivan believed that the murder of the witnesses was an effort by an organised crime unit to disguise its role in the heist and subsequent theft of the recovered money. He was dismissed by the airports company in 2003 because of “irreconcilable differences”.

Inside job
Four of the original 25 accused have received suspended sentences and are acting as state witnesses. They are airports company employees Sean Soobramoney, Nazir Ishmail, Rookaaya Ebrahim and Magdalena Moonsammy, the only woman involved in the heist.

Ishmail, one of the state’s leading witnesses, pleaded guilty on charges of robbery with aggravating circumstances and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition in 2008. He received a 20-year sentence, which was suspended for five years, provided he assisted the state as a witness against the other accused.

Three of the accused died while out on bail. Vusi Khumalo was deported to Zimbabwe and his case was withdrawn in 2009. The eight standing trial include five who were released on bail, but they were rearrested for committing other acts of crime, including robbery. They are now held in correctional facilities in Johannesburg, Pongola and Vereeniging.

Accused number three, Ronny Bongani Mbuyisa, was still held in Leeuhof Prison and was not transported in time for the trial.

Also appearing were suspects Cecil Arendse and Christopher Billings, who were released on bail earlier in the proceeding. This was surprising, because Billings was cited by Ishmail as one of the “main thinkers” behind the robbery.

Only Maundu, charged for possessing $10 000 of the stolen money, which he apparently received from his deceased uncle and co-accused, Uakotaka Tjindunda, has been incarcerated in Johannesburg Prison Medium A for the full seven years. His charges carry a sentence of only five years. “I’m tired. I’m ready for this to end,” Maundu said this week.

Horrid prison conditions
Johannesburg’s remand detention cells are notoriously overcrowded and 6 000 detainees are held in a facility intended to house only 2 000. Sanitation facilities are poor, with one open toilet in cells shared by 80 detainees. Remand detainees are not allowed contact visits, which means Maundu has been unable to touch his family or friends in seven years.

Prosecutor Wilhelmien Vos mentioned that the state had only six witnesses left to question out of 57. They include investigating officer Colonel Willie Joubert, a witness from MTN to testify on call records and a representative from the police to testify on phone linkages.

Vos said she was confident that the state would complete its case within the next week.

Koen is a journalist at the Wits Justice Project, which investigates unreasonable delays in trials and miscarriages of justice

Grethe Koen

Grethe Koen

Grethe Koen has an Honours degree in political science and worked at an organisation for prisoners’ human rights before joining the Mail & Guardian online team as a sub-editor. When she’s not replacing commas with full-stops and taking out pesky html coding she likes writing about music, gender issues and whatever is trending on Twitter. Read more from Grethe Koen

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