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Johannesburg - It was a case that went from a police success to a police disaster.
The search warrant was inadequate. The evidence was lost. The charges were a mess. Even the magistrate’s judgment had to be reconstructed after a court order.
But Victor Azubuike Oforah spent more than three years in jail and had to wait six years for an appeal judgment that overturned his conviction.
“This case really destroyed me,” Oforah said on Tuesday.
“If you have been in prison, people see you as a criminal. I thank God that he gave me justice.”
Oforah was arrested in his Braamfontein office in July 2007, accused of running an illegal “Home Affairs” office. He was convicted of fraud, forgery and possession of stolen property and sentenced to an effective 14 years in jail.
A police report from the time lists his arrest under “police successes”.
Oforah appealed, and last month the Johannesburg High Court overturned his conviction and criticised the police for sloppy work. In the end, he served three years and three months, as he was granted bail during the appeal.
The appeal was delayed because the magistrate’s judgment was missing until a court order resulted in the production of an 84-page reconstruction.
“The appellant appears to have been convicted based more upon suspicion, conjecture and atmosphere than upon hard evidence that demonstrated his guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” said Acting Judge Peter Levenberg. “This outcome is unfortunate because, if the State’s suspicions are correct, fraud, forgery and illegality on a grand scale (in which the appellant was involved) may have been going on in the premises searched.
“But the State and the SAPS have only themselves to blame for their failure to prove their case. Arbitrary and overreaching police action can never serve as a substitute for a thorough and competent police investigation.”
Using a search warrant, the police seized “numerous passports of various nationalities”, official-looking stamps, and computers from Oforah’s offices.
“The implication was that the appellant (Oforah) was illegally procuring visas, permanent residence permits, identity documents, passports and the like for foreign nationals, who were not entitled to them,” said the judge.
“By the time the matter came to trial, these passports had allegedly been lost,” said the judge.
The convictions relied on the search warrant, which the judge called “a most unsatisfactory document” and ruled invalid, which meant that the evidence was obtained illegally and could not be used. There was no other evidence.
The warrant “fails to comply with the requirements of intelligibility”, said the judge.
Oforah was charged with forgery rather than possession of forged documents, without evidence of intent to commit fraud, and he was charged with theft of the official stamps, while mistakes on the stamps indicated forgery - not stolen goods.
On Tuesday, Oforah said he had been working in a legitimate business, acting as a registered immigration agent, and his employer was not charged. He also said police officers had asked him for a bribe, which he refused.
“The day I was sentenced, it seemed that I was sentenced for being an illegal immigrant,” he added.