Johannesburg - It is one of those rare occasions where both the State and the defence agree - that rhino smuggler Chumlong Lemtongthai’s sentence is too harsh.
Lemtongthai, a Thai national who was sentenced to 40 years in the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court last year, on Thursday appealed against his jail term in the Johannesburg High Court.
But both sides on Thursday agreed in their arguments that the number of years given to Lemtongthai should be reduced.
“The respondent respectfully submits that the learned magistrate could only have imposed five years’ imprisonment on counts 1-26, in accordance with section 80 (1) of the Customs and Excise Act, Act 91 of 1964 and 10 years’ imprisonment on counts 27 to 36, and count 37 to 46 respectively in accordance with section 102 (1) of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act, Act 10 of 2004,” the State’s heads of argument read.
Still, the State is looking for Lemtongthai to serve 31 years, for the 52 charges he faced.
However, Lemtongthai’s lawyers argued for a far more lenient sentence.
“A sentence of not more than 10 years would be appropriate,” Lemtongthai’s legal representative, advocate JP Marais, told the court.
Marais went on to say that such a sentence would allow his client “still time to do some good in society”, and because he had been convicted, he would not be allowed back into the country. Such a long sentence, even if it were 31 years, would incur a huge bill for the taxpayer, Marais also argued.
“A prisoner costs the State R9 500 a month, for 31 years that would be R3.5 million that the taxpayer has to fork out.”
On November 9 last year, Lemtongthai was handed the harshest sentence given for a wildlife crime in South Africa. It was sentence usually associated with capital crimes like murder or rape.
In his judgment on the day, magistrate Prince Manyathi said he passed such a harsh sentence as to send a “shout to the community and the Asian block that these actions will not be tolerated”.
“I don’t want a situation where my grandchildren will only see a rhino in a newspaper. We have to protect our flora and fauna,” he said.
In a plea-agreement statement, Lemtongthai had outlined in the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court how he’d perpetrated his horn-smuggling operation. He’d forged hunting permits, and had made up false hunting histories for the each applicant.
He’d used bogus hunters, who included alleged Thai prostitutes, who were paid R5 000 to pose next to dead rhinos that professional hunters had shot.
In total, 26 sets of rhino horn were seized during the operation.
Lemtongthai wasn’t in court yesterday. He is serving his time in Modderbee Correctional Services in Benoni. Animal rights activists gathered at the court on Thursday.
Earlier, the prosecutor, advocate Marile van Heerden, argued against the court simply imposing a million-rand fine. “A million rand is not a deterrent to him, he is a wealthy man in Thailand, he has a house worth R3.5 million,” she said.
Judgment was expected on Friday.