Arms deal critics face criminal action if they shun Seriti

Arms deal critics Hennie Van Vuuren, Andrew Feinstein and Paul Holden, who withdrew in protest from appearing as witnesses are being subpoenaed to appear before the Arms Procurement Commission.

The three activists announced they were withdrawing their participation in August, as they said the commission was failing to fully investigate the arms deal “without fear and favour.”

A research associate at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa, Van Vuuren was the first to receive his subpoena on Monday and he is now scheduled to give evidence at the commission on October 20. 

Feinstein and Holden both reside in London and the commission’s spokesperson William Baloyi indicated their subpoenas would “take longer” to dispatch as they are based overseas.

Criminal action
Despite having publicly expressed his unwillingness to participate any longer in the commission of inquiry into the 1999 R70-billion arms deal, Van Vuuren will now have to take legal advice as he could face criminal action if he fails to testify. 

Among the many concerns raised by Van Vuuren, Feinstein and Holden was that the commission had failed to provide them with documents they had repeatedly requested. Its chairperson Judge Willie Seriti had also indicated he was not interested in hearing evidence from witnesses about documents they had not written themselves, they said.

This grievance was highlighted in the bombshell resignation letter by two advocates Barry Skinner SC and Carol Sibiya, who quit their roles as evidence leaders at the commission in July. While their resignation letter was cited as “confidential” by the commission, it was leaked to the Mail & Guardian and gave a damning insight of its inner workings. 

Apart from revealing that Seriti had denied them the right to cross-examine witnesses, Skinner and Sibiya also slated the chair’s decision not to permit as evidence a damning report claiming that German arms dealer Ferrostaal paid R300-million, through a web of middlemen and offshore accounts, allegedly to influence senior politicians to secure the sale of submarines to South Africa. 

Earlier this year, Holden attempted to introduce the document, prepared by an independent United States law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton to the commission, but Seriti would not allow it to be permitted as evidence because it was leaked.

In response to questions sent by the M&G last week, Baloyi confirmed that Van Vuuren had now been scheduled to give evidence in October, and both Feinstein and Holden would also be issued with subpoenas at a later stage. “It is the Commission which decides who should be called to testify and Mr Van Vuuren is amongst the people who are believed to possess important information concerning wrongdoing in the arms procurement,” said Baloyi. “It will be remiss of the Commission not to call him. Otherwise the regulations are clear about what should happen if a witness refuses to testify.”

A growing list of senior legal figures have quit the commission in the past 18 months, and expressed disquiet in public or to their colleagues about the clandestine way in which the commission was being run.  However, the commission has dismissed these top legal figures and others who quit as “disgruntled employees.”

“The Commission cannot be shut down simply because a few individuals are unhappy with it. It should be noted that the Commission has already heard evidence running into thousands of typed pages and very important evidence is still to be heard from important witnesses including investigators and implicated people,” said Baloyi. “The baseless, malicious assertions that the Commission will be a cover-up and that it has lost credibility will not deter us from executing our mandate.”

Baloyi added, “It is ridiculous to say that the Commission had lost credibility or its relevance just because a few disgruntled individuals have refused to testify or that some employees have left its employment. And of course disgruntled employees will always say negative things about their employer upon leaving.”

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