Deon de Lange

South Africa once again finds itself front and centre in an arms deal controversy after Human Rights Watch discovered a document in Tripoli that appears to confirm that sniper rifles were exported to Libya in apparent contravention of our arms trading regime.

The “delivery note” is addressed to one General Gaser Ben Gasher of the “purchase department” – assumed to be that of the Libyan armed forces – and provides the first proof that Midrand-based weapons maker Truvelo Manufacturers sold sniper rifles to Libya in 2009.

South African authorities have repeatedly denied that any weapons were exported to that country in 2009.

A “packing list” describes the delivery – just one of 28 boxes destined for Tripoli – as containing 5 Truvelo Sniper Rifles, 5 magazines, 5 carrying cases, 5 carrying bags and associated cleaning kits, an operator’s manual and a “telescope booklet”. Delivery of this batch took place at Tripoli International Airport on December 3, 2009, according to the document.

The Daily News has been unable to independently verify the document. Truvelo director Ralf Gebert did not respond to requests for comment.

However, he has previously told Rapport newspaper that his company broke no laws.

“There are procedures in South Africa we are following. We adhere to the rules and regulations and that is that,” he was quoted as saying.

Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe, who also chairs the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), said that between 2003 and 2009 about R80 million worth of weapons went from South Africa to Libya. This included shotguns, military vehicles, ammunition, parachutes and night vision equipment.

And Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, also a member of the NCACC, has previously confirmed that South Africa approved R68m in weapons exports to Libya last year. The NCACC is responsible for monitoring all weapons exports from South Africa and is required to report annually to Parliament and the UN on all exports from South Africa.

The NCACC reported zero sales to Libya in 2009.

Approached for comment last night, Radebe’s spokesman, Tlali Tlali, said he would need more time to verify the Human Rights Watch claims.

“This matter will require, among other things, that we verify the claims made against information contained in the Arms Control Permit system. That is a secure system to which we do not have remote access. In essence, we will be able to attend to your inquiry during office hours when we are able to do the verifications.”

DA MP David Maynier, who first made the claims about sniper rifle exports, said the unearthed document “provides clear evidence that sniper rifles were exported to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya”.

He said the information would be handed over to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who agreed last month to look into the sniper rifle claims.

Soon after Maynier raised the issue in February this year, Radebe issued an angry rebuke on behalf of the NCACC, accusing the MP of trying to “blemish the image of our government and the country before the eyes of the world”.

“The wave of political instability that has hit a number of North African and Middle-East countries is seen by the DA as an opportunity to gain political mileage at the expense of our government,” Radebe said at the time.

Soon after, the issue provoked a stand-off between the two men in Parliament. Maynier was kicked out of the National Assembly after he refused to withdraw a comment suggesting Radebe had blood on his hands with regard to Libya. This was after anti-Gaddafi protesters came under sniper fire and reports emerged that the weapons used may have originated in South Africa.

During a media briefing in Cape Town on February 22, Sisulu was asked if South Africa had exported sniper rifles to Libya.

“Have we sold any sniper rifles to Libya? Not that I am aware of. We have a committee that oversees the sale of any arms or ammunition from South Africa to any country outside of ourselves. A report is provided of our activities in this regard by the NCACC and I am not aware that Libya is on the list of those countries that we have sold sniper rifles to,” she said.

But Sisulu recently changed her tune. Responding to a related question in Cape Town last week, the minister inadvertently confirmed what had long been suspected – and denied.

“We have never sold (arms) to any country that has been embargoed by the UN or that we have perceived to be on the brink of civil war. When we sold the sniper rifles to Libya, Libya was as secure to the extent that it was possible for us to determine,” she said, apparently unaware that she was the first government official to confirm the rumours.

“At no point have we been in breach (of the NCACC Act) to the extent that it is possible for us to determine,” Sisulu added.

At the same media briefing and without a hint or irony, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele – who provides the NCACC with political risk analyses for countries that are potential recipients of South African weapons – expressed concern about the “circulation of weapons” in Libya and the surrounding area.

Another NCACC member, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, said at the briefing that South Africa erred on the side of caution when it came to weapons exports and lamented the country’s lost opportunities in the global arms trade.

The NCACC Act stipulates that the committee should avoid exports to governments “that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

In 2009, while South African companies were arming Gaddafi, international human rights group Freedom House ranked Libya along with Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Burma and Uzbekistan as the “worst of the worst” human rights offenders.