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Johannesburg - The State’s star witness in the trial of three men accused of murdering German supercar specialist Uwe Gemballa had another year added to his 20-year sentence on Wednesday - for holding the court to ransom.
Thabiso Mpye, who confessed to the crime and led police to Gemballa’s shallow grave, received his initial sentence in a plea-bargain agreement in exchange for his testimony against three co-accused.
But in a startling about-turn at the start of trial last week, he changed his story, claiming to have been beaten into a false confession.
And on Wednesday, he again brought proceedings to a halt with his bizarre behaviour - essentially holding the court to ransom by refusing to answer questions put to him.
When State advocate Riegel du Toit tried to continue cross-examining him, Mpye put his head down, ignored all questions and read a book he had brought with him. “I put it to you that your evidence-in-chief is a fabrication of the truth,” Du Toit said.
Mpye simply kept reading.
Du Toit accused Mpye of holding the court to ransom, while Judge George Maluleke put it to him that he could face further charges.
The judge then slapped Mpye with an additional 12 months’ imprisonment for his refusal to testify.
Mpye’s confession to Gemballa’s kidnapping and murder after his arrival at OR Tambo International Airport led to the arrest of three other men -0 Garland Holworthy, Thabo Mohapi and Kagiso Ledwaba - who are currently standing trial for the kidnapping and killing.
But instead of testifying against the men, Mpye shocked the court when he announced that his confession and subsequent statements from three years ago were fictitious.
He said he had been coerced into a confession by police investigators, and accused prosecutors and his own attorney of being part of a conspiracy to implicate him and the three other accused.
He also said none of the accused were involved in the murder, and that four other men had approached him to help hide Gemballa’s body.
Du Toit said, however, that Mpye had recanted his statement either because his conspiracy theory was true or - more likely - that he was collaborating with the accused to attack the State’s case.
Mpye’s about-turn led the court to declare him a hostile witness this week, meaning the State could cross-examine him as though he was a witness for the defence.
But this proved impossible on Wednesday as Mpye refused to answer questions, saying he would only agree to speak if he was transferred back to Johannesburg Prison from Leeuwkop Prison, where he had been transferred for security reasons.
Mpye said his depression medication and sleeping pills had been withheld since his move to Leeuwkop, and that he hadn’t slept in two days because of it.
He said his privileges, including a kettle and radio, had been taken from him, that he was subject to intimidation at Leeuwkop from unidentified “gangsters”, and that he feared for his life.
He then said he had considered drinking poison that had somehow been provided to him in prison.
“I’m not saying I’m running away from the truth… but I can’t handle it,” he said.
It was also established that Mpye was a high-risk prisoner, meaning he was a danger to himself or other prisoners.
Mpye insisted that if the court didn’t order that he be transferred back to Johannesburg Prison - the same facility holding the other three accused - he would not testify.
When Mpye was excused from the dock on Wednesday afternoon, he exclaimed to guards outside the courtroom: “I’m free, I’m free!”
He then announced that he was glad he wouldn’t be responsible for breaking up the families of the three accused.
The trial continues on Thursday with a new witness.