French presidents 'tried to torpedo SA arms deal probe'

Sooklal (right) told the Mail & Guardian during the lunch break that he had not yet settled his long-standing court battle with Thales, in which he claims that Thales owes him R70-million in outstanding legal fees (Gallo)

Sooklal (right) told the Mail & Guardian during the lunch break that he had not yet settled his long-standing court battle with Thales, in which he claims that Thales owes him R70-million in outstanding legal fees (Gallo)

After delivering testimony on Monday that implicated two former French presidents and South African leaders in the arms deal, attorney Ajay Sooklal chose to withdraw from the People’s Tribunal on Economic Crimes after being questioned by former justice Zak Yacoob on his moral judgments.  

Yacoob, who is chairing the panel of five adjudicators in the tribunal, had a tense exchange with Sooklal that was interrupted four times when the former fixer for French arms dealers asked for a break to collect his thoughts and meet with evidence leaders.

During the course of the day, Sooklal claimed that two former French presidents – Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy – had asked former South African president Thabo Mbeki and his then deputy Jacob Zuma to put a stop to the investigation into Thales and Thint (a subsidiary company of Thales’s southern Africa division).

Sooklal alleged that in 2004 Chirac had put pressure on Mbeki to stop the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) from investigating Thales. 

And, in 2008, Zuma met with Sarkozy on two occasions, Sooklal said. Sooklal attended one meeting in Cape Town, where, he said, Sarkozy told Zuma to make the investigations into Thales “go away”. The French president repeated this demand when he met Zuma in Paris that same year, Sooklal said.

A statement by the Presidency in 2008 confirmed that Sarkozy came to South Africa on a state visit in February. He and Zuma reportedly had a “private meeting” at the luxury Westin Hotel in Cape Town.

Sooklal did not provide the exact dates on which Sarkozy and Chirac allegedly made these demands, and his credibility came under scrutiny when Yacoob and other members of the adjudication panel began to question his motives for coming forward.

A whistleblower who waited years

Tribunal adjudicators Navi Pillay – a former UN high commissioner for human rights – and Mandisa Dyantyi – a social justice activist – both questioned Sooklal about why he had not previously alerted law enforcement agencies about suspicious payments Thales had made to South African politicians – including Zuma and former arms procurement head Chippy Shaik.

Sooklal claims that he has “vouchers” detailing some of the payments that were made, and he read a Swiss court judgment which revealed how Schabir Shaik was paid 1.2-million French francs by Thales to his Swiss bank account. South African authorities had approached the Swiss for judicial assistance after they became aware money had been transferred into Swiss bank accounts, Sooklal said.

Armed with these court documents and the “vouchers”, as well as being privy to private meetings and discussions with Thales bosses, the tribunal panel said that surely Sooklal could have approached law enforcement when he knew of these payments.

Sooklal admitted that he knew about payments when he when he worked at Thales in 2003 as a lawyer and fixer for the firm. It took 10 years for him to make some of these allegations public in an affidavit which he filed in 2014.

Sooklal said he had written to the Seriti Commission to offer his testimony, but his letter has been “ignored to this day”.

Grilled by Yacoob

When Zuma appointed the arms commission, Sooklal said the president asked for a meeting at his Pretoria home in 2012, where he allegedly said: “I request you not to inform the commission that the French were paying me monies until 2009.”

When asked by the panel why he agreed to this request, Sooklal replied: “The invitation to meet President Zuma took me by surprise. My response was an immediate and impulsive one. On reflection and if called to do so I would have informed the Seriti Commission on what had occurred. I had approached the commission, but I was ignored.”

Yacoob began a line of questioning that interrogated Sooklal’s moral character. He asked Sooklal when he had realised that Zuma was “dishonest and corrupt”.

“When did this truth… first dawn on you?” he asked.

Sooklal said he came to know of Zuma’s dishonesty in 2008, three years after Shaik was convicted of fraud and corruption in the Durban high court.

Yacoob then pushed, asking if Sooklal did not agree with the Durban high court judgement in 2005, which implicated both Zuma and Thales. Sooklal said he did agree it was right Shaik was convicted and he agreed that Zuma was shown to be corrupt in the judgment.

“Can you please explain to me how you can justify holding those two views [that Zuma was honourable and was corruptible at the same time],” Yacoob asked Sooklal.

Sooklal then agreed to Yacoob’s suggestion that proceedings adjourn so he could formulate a response. When he returned, Sooklal said he had in fact realised Zuma was dishonest in 2005 and not 2008.

Yacoob then proceeded to ask Sooklal if he was concerned for his own reputation because Thint, to whom he was contracted, was implicated in the judgement. Sooklal denied he was concerned for his reputation.

“You were perfectly comfortable with yourself?” Yacoob asked.

“Yes,” was Sooklal’s reply.

Under pressure from Yacoob, Sooklal eventually admitted that Thint’s implication in the judgement had “greatly upset” him.

During the terse exchange, Yacoob told the three evidence leaders that they could protect Sooklal if they wished to do so, and that Sooklal was not obliged to answer every question. He could also walk out if he wanted, Yacoob said, because the tribunal is not legally binding.

After an adjournment, evidence leader Mkhululi Duncan Stubbs told Yacoob that Sooklal did not want to answer questions which suggest he is immoral. Stubbs said that Sooklal is involved in an arbitration dispute and had appeals pending.

Sooklal told the Mail & Guardian during the lunch break that he had not yet settled his long-standing court battle with Thales, in which he claims that Thales owes him R70-million in outstanding legal fees.

Thales denied Sooklal’s allegations in 2014 that the company had offered a bribe of R500 000 a year to Zuma in exchange for political protection. Sooklal was employed by Thales for legal services and marketing. He also worked as a fixer for the firm, and was implicated in facilitating bribes and gifts for Zuma when he worked there during the period of 2003 until 2009.

Sooklal said that he had been “astounded” by the level of corruption in South Africa since the arms deal, which is why he approached the tribunal. But Yacoob wasn’t convinced and continued to question Sooklal’s motives.

The entire tribunal nearly threatened to come to a halt when Stubbs questioned how he should protect the witness when the panel would be both asking questions and deciding on whether an objection was acceptable. Yacoob responded that Stubbs could ask an opponent to ask questions and the panel could withdraw - meaning proceedings would have to start from the beginning - if he preferred it.

Stubbs disagreed, and clarified that he was only wanting an indication of what his parameters are for protecting a witness.

At this point, Sooklal requested another adjournment. He stood with the tribunal organisors in a room next door to the atrium at the women’s jail at Constitutional Hill where the tribunal was being held. The two rooms are separated by glass doors, and through those doors Sooklal was visibly upset.

Holding his briefcase at his side, Sooklal shook hands with tribunal organisers and then proceeded to leave the area.

Stubbs returned, and, after the panel was seated, he confirmed Sooklal had withdrawn from the tribunal.

It will now be up to the panel to decide if his entire body of evidence should be withdrawn. Yacoob stressed that just because a witness is a whistleblower, does not mean the veracity of their evidence must go unchecked.

The tribunal, which is hearing public submissions on apartheid era economic crimes, the arms deal, and economic crimes in state capture, will continue on Tuesday where more testimonies will be heard from activist Zackie Achmat and the Right2Know Campaign. 

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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