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Cape Town - INVESTIGATIONS into what is believed to be South Africa’s largest abalone poaching syndicate show that its members allegedly harvested abalone worth more than R2 billion, and pocketed more than R50 million, which was used to fund their lifestyles and buy cars and property.
Now, 17 members of the alleged syndicate, including Gansbaai fisherman Frank Barends, who allegedly managed it, are at risk of losing every asset they have bought over the past 15 years, along with the contents of their bank accounts after the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) this week obtained a restraint order in the Western Cape High Court.
In terms of the order, their bank accounts have been frozen and their assets placed under the control of a curator. They have to disclose to the curator all realisable property, including gifts.
Chinese national Ran Wei, who is believed to be a main figure in the syndicate, was not a party to the restraint proceedings because he has been at large for seven years.
However, in court papers it is alleged that Barends alone benefited to the tune of R14m.
Bellville attorney Anthony Broadway, who allegedly helped Barends with his financial affairs, and who represented several syndicate members since 2001, was also a defendant in the restraint proceedings. His assets, listed on an annexure to the order, include properties in Kenridge and Bellville, a Mercedes-Benz, a Hyundai i20, a trailer, two motorcycles and the contents of nine bank accounts in his name. His wife, Helena, who lives in Kent in the UK, has been cited as a respondent, as was close corporation Royal Albatross Investments, in which Barends and two of his co-accused hold members’ interests.
The 17 members, together with others, have been charged with several contraventions of the Marine Living Resources Act and the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, including money laundering and racketeering. Some have also been charged with corruption for allegedly bribing police to facilitate their activities.
The assets of police officers Frank Maritz and Boltwun Boezak, who are accused of ensuring that the road was free of law enforcement officials when members of the alleged syndicate transported abalone through Beaufort West, were also subject to the order.
In the criminal case, some accused have also been charged with fraud for alleged under-declarations made to Sars.
In an affidavit, investigator Deon de Jager said the charges related to unlawful harvesting, processing and transporting abalone around the Western Cape and, on some occasions, other provinces.
He painted a picture of the alleged syndicate’s operations, saying the investigation showed they operated in an organised fashion, “as a criminal syndicate operating an unlawful enterprise”.
“The investigation established that the enterprise has operated since at least 1998. It has been extremely difficult to put a value to the benefit derived by the defendants charged in this matter. The evidence, however, will show that huge amounts of cash flowed from the enterprise, and it is believed that the value of the benefit accrued to the defendants, accused persons and the respondents in total far exceeds R50m,” De Jager said.
According to him, Ran, Barends, Christiaan Crous and Donovan Dickson managed the enterprise, while the rest were ordinary members:
* “Ran supplied large amounts of money used to pay the various poaching or diving groups, and to rent or purchase immovable properties that were used for the processing and drying of the abalone. (Barends) was Ran’s main supplier of abalone. Unfortunately... it is not possible to join Ran in these proceedings as there are no prospects of him eventually being found and prosecuted. He may, however, be joined later if he is located before the trial commences,” De Jager said.
* Barends was the main buyer of poached abalone from divers which was sold to Ran.
* Crous obtained drivers and vehicles, mainly at auctions, which were registered in the names of people not directly linked to the enterprise. He was also responsible for renting two farms in North West for the storage and drying of abalone.
* Dickson was responsible for transporting abalone, and was also entrusted with the transportation of substantial sums of money used to pay for abalone delivered to the alleged enterprise.
The others acted as spotters, packers, drivers, collectors of money, divers and poachers, he said.
According to De Jager, money was laundered through bank accounts in Barends’s name, as well as bank accounts linked to Royal Albatross. In addition, it is alleged that Broadway used his firm’s bank account as a conduit to launder the proceeds of unlawful activities.
In a separate affidavit, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Gcobani Bam said it was clear from De Jager’s evidence that the enterprise operated for commercial purposes.
He added that the defendants’ expenditure and the property they bought were paid for with the proceeds of their alleged unlawful activity.
According to Bam, the order was sought in order to restrain the syndicate’s assets to satisfy a future confiscation order in the event they were convicted.
Judge Andre le Grange granted the restraint order and their assets have now been placed under the control of curator Andre van Heerden.
The alleged syndicate members will appear in the High Court for a pre-trial conference on November 22.