Sheryl Cwele’s appeal gives mule new hope

Convicted drug mule Tessa Beetge, who has already spent four years in an overcrowded prison in São Paulo, Brazil, is desperately hoping for a reduction in her 12-year sentence following the conviction of Sheryl Cwele, the former wife of State ­Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele.

But the possibility of Beetge coming home early hinges on what happens in the Supreme Court of Appeal next week, according to her devoted mother, Marie Swanepoel. Cwele and her Nigerian co-accused, Frank Nabolisa, are appealing against their conviction and sentence for drug trafficking and dealing in drugs.

"I was told by our foreign affairs department that if anyone is put in jail, they might be able to help to try get my daughter's sentence reduced," said Swanepoel.

She has spent more than four years fighting to ensure that those who recruited her daughter to smuggle cocaine to South Africa will pay for it, and she intends travelling to Bloemfontein to listen to the appeal.

"I'm allowed only two calls a year. I spoke to Tessa on her 35th birthday recently and she is coping," said Swanepoel. "She just wants this all to be over and to come home early if she can."

Flatly denied throughout
In the heads of argument prepared on her behalf by Kemp J Kemp SC, Cwele denied that she entered into a conspiracy to use two women, Beetge and Charmaine Moss, to transport drugs.

These allegations were "flatly denied throughout" from her arrest and bail hearing to the sentencing process, the court papers state.

Kemp said it was clear from the admissable evidence in court that there was no direct evidence of the conspiracy or agreed arrangement. There was no evidence from Moss, who testified, or Beetge, who did not testify, that Cwele had at any time asked them to carry any packages, mentioned the words drug or cocaine, or any "overt act" that constituted direct awareness of the arrangement or that cocaine was to be smuggled, her court papers claim.

There was also no admissable evidence of interaction between Cwele or Nabolisa, it was alleged. Cwele's understanding when Beetge left for overseas was that she was going to work for Nabolisa and she had "sought to assist in arranging such travel plans", her appeal states.

However, by appealing their conviction, both Cwele and Nabolisa are taking a risk.

In the state's supplementary paper in its heads of argument, senior state advocate Ian Cooke states that the judgment stressed the gravity of international drug trafficking through the use of "mules" to import cocaine in their luggage from abroad.

The situation of both Cwele and Nabolisa was even "more serious", it states, because of the large amount of cocaine found and the fact they were the organisers of the crime.

"Their moral reprehensibility far exceeds that of the 'mules'," the state said in its court papers.

"A sentence in the region of 20 years' imprisonment should rather have been imposed. This court is free to impose a sentence in excess of the prescribed minimum if it finds that such would be fitting."

Cwele was divorced from her husband last year after she was convicted. The Daily News reported that the divorce was finalised in the Pietermaritzburg High Court last August. Both Cwele and Nabolisa were convicted by Judge Piet Koen on May 5 last year and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Glimpse of hope
Following her conviction, Cwele also lost her job as health director at the Hibiscus Coast municipality, where the Mail & Guardian was told she was popular with staff. However, a disciplinary committee that was convened to decide whether she should keep her post ruled against her.

Cwele was released on R10 000 bail and her former husband rushed from the Pietermaritzburg court to the bank to obtain the money when she was given bail.

For Swanepoel, there was a glimpse of hope that she might see her daughter again when the Brazilian authorities indicated that they were willing to send Beetge to testify in person during the trial.

But Cooke said that South Africa could not risk bringing her back because she might disappear or seek legal recourse to block her return and create a diplomatic incident.

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