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Durban - The former chief of the Mandeni testing centre, accused with his staff of having issued thousands of fraudulent driving licences, has walked free midway through the trial.
Richie Mark Heslop, 40, as well as seven traffic officers and three clerks from the Mandeni Driving Licence Testing Centre, and nine driving school instructors/owners had been in the Eshowe Regional Court on a total of 207 racketeering, corruption and fraud charges.
Four of the accused had already been discharged or their trials separated.
And following a successful discharge application by legal representatives, Heslop and seven other accused were cleared of all charges on Friday.
At the start of the trial last July, the State had alleged that the staff had issued thousands of illegal licences in 2009 and 2010.
It alleged that driving licence applicants were not examined or tested, test sheets were fraudulently completed, and licences were issued to people who had not taken the prescribed test and to people who were not competent to drive a vehicle.
The State alleged that applicants were in many cases brought to the centre by driving school instructors.
Most seriously, the State charged all 20 accused with racketeering – a charge that carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment – and alleged that the staff had colluded with each other and with driving school instructors to run “a criminal enterprise” selling fraudulent licences.
They were charged under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act of 1998, which introduced measures to combat organised crime, money laundering and gang activities.
Heslop had faced two charges of racketeering, five counts of corruption, five counts of fraud and five counts of contravening the Road Traffic Act.
Heslop alone had faced a second racketeering charge – the first in terms of the alleged collusion, and the second because he was accused of “managing or supervising or controlling the enterprise”… in effect, that he was “the mastermind”. The State had alleged that he must have known about the widespread fraud taking place at the testing centre.
However, he was discharged by the court after a successful application by his defence attorney, Stanger-based Rakesh Maharaj.
After the State closed its case on Thursday, all six lawyers representing the accused had each argued that the State’s case had not provided sufficient evidence against their clients, and had asked that they be found not guilty on all charges.
On the racketeering charges, magistrate Anand Maharaj granted a discharge from prosecution to all the accused. He ruled that the State had not established the elements of racketeering. The State could not prove that the accused acted together, the magistrate said, adding there was no evidence that the individual accused knew of each other’s actions.
The magistrate had last week done an in loco inspection in Mandeni. In his ruling on the application for a discharge, he pointed out that the Mandeni centre’s testing ground was 1.2km from its offices. “The people in the office could not know what was going on at the testing grounds,” he said.
Apart from the racketeering charges, Maharaj also granted a discharge from prosecution on some of the lesser charges, in the cases of some of the accused.
In a detailed judgment, he said that he had granted the application for three reasons:
First, most of the witnesses – about 40 had testified – had not identified either the person who tested them, or the person they gave money to.
Second, some of the witnesses had testified that they had made their statements under threat of arrest. Some even recanted elements of their statements. “Our legal system does not allow that statements made under duress can be admitted as evidence,” he said.
Only one witness had identified Heslop, but she had told the court that she had made her statement under threat, which resulted in that evidence being disallowed.
Third, on some counts, witnesses had not testified at all.
Eight of the accused – two traffic officers, two clerks and four driving school instructors – have now been acquitted. The remaining eight accused will stand trial when the case resumes on August 11. They face charges of fraud, corruption and contravening the Road Traffic Act.
Charges against former driving instructor Patrick Jabulani Banda, 40, had been withdrawn because he had suffered serious injuries in a car accident. The charges could be reinstated if and when Banda’s condition improves.
On Friday, prosecutor K Shazi indicated to the court that she would take the magistrate’s decision to discharge eight of the accused under review.
The magistrate said that, in his understanding, the law did not make provision for a review, but he gave her the go-ahead.
Maharaj said: “It is at the discretion of the court. Our law provides for the court to release the accused now; if there is no reasonable prospect of convicting them, they must be acquitted.”
The State expects to have the outcome of the review by the time the trial resumes on August 11.