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Dead man walking?

Published Mar 2, 2004


By Jonathan Ancer, Baldwin Ndaba and Gill Gifford

Alleged Israeli mafia lieutenant Lior Saadt walked out of court a free man - but a marked one as well.

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He went straight into hiding on Monday after the state dropped the bombshell that it was unable to pursue the murder charge against him. He had been accused of murdering Shai Avissar, a diamond dealer and also an alleged Israeli mafiosi.

Earlier in the day, undercover officers swarmed in and out of the Johannesburg High Court, keeping their eyes peeled for hitmen, while Saadt's own security men searched building rooftops for snipers.

Saadt was flanked by dozens of bodyguards, who whisked him into a bulletproof car and drove him to a safe house.

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The state's case against him collapsed because socialite Hazel Crane, a witness, was murdered in November and investigating officer Wayne Kukard died of a heart attack on January 6. Crane was the third witness to have been murdered.

Police confirmed on Monday that the other witnesses had withdrawn their statements and were too frightened to come forward against Saadt.

But Saadt himself is running scared. His lawyer, Lawley Shein, said his client feared for his life after being set free.

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Diamond dealer Avissar, kingpin of the Israeli mafia in South Africa and Crane's estranged husband, was bludgeoned to death with a bat on October 8, 1999.

“He (Saadt) is very happy with the outcome but still fears for his life,” Shein said.

Saadt, 33, survived an attempted hit two years ago after being shot in the buttocks while being transported to court.

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State prosecutor Tom Dicker told the court that the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had decided to withdraw the charges against Saadt “due to the murder of Hazel Crane” and “the untimely death” of Kukard.

After Judge David Marais endorsed the decision, Saadt asked his bodyguards to accompany him to the holding cells while the paperwork was completed.

Outside court, a jubilant Shein maintained his client's innocence.

“The DPP realised that there would be no grounds for a reasonable and successful prosecution because there was no evidence against my client,” he said.

“Do you think the DPP would withdraw charges so easily? They withdrew the charges because there was no chance of success.”

Shein added that Crane was not an eyewitness to Avissar's murder and could only have given circumstantial evidence. He denied earlier reports that Saadt enjoyed special treatment while in custody.

“My client was treated like any other prisoner, except for the fact that he was in a single cell, because he believed that there was a contract on his life,” Shein said.

It is understood that Saadt would try and leave SA as soon as possible - even by Monday night.

Shein confirmed that his client had no intention to stay in the country.

“Lior's an Israeli. He'll go back to Israel and try to rebuild his life. There's nothing keeping him in South Africa. Lior spent three years living in hell on earth as an awaiting-trial prisoner, where the conditions are appalling,” Shein said.

Daniel Pinhasi, the acting Israeli ambassador, confirmed that the embassy had been approached by the South African and Israeli police with a request for Saadt to be issued with a travel document.

“We have issued Saadt with a restricted travel document, called a laissez passer. The document allows him to travel to Israel - and only to Israel. No other country will accept him,” Pinhasi said.

As Saadt walks free, the investigations into the deaths of murdered witnesses set to testify against him have gone cold. No one has been arrested for the murder of Crane, who was shot four times after leaving her home in upmarket Abbotsford, Johannesburg.

She was on her way to attend a court appearance of Saadt. Crane died a few hours after the shooting.

Investigating officer Inspector Johnnie Kriger, of the Johannesburg Serious and Violent Crimes Unit, maintains that he is following up on leads but could not name a suspect.

Avissar's remains were found five months after he had been bludgeoned to death. His remains had been buried in a shallow grave on a Pretoria smallholding.

Soon after Avissar's body was found, a warrant of arrest was issued for Saadt, who was captured at the Maputo border in 2001 - 15 months later.

Kukard worked closely with Kriger on the cases. Before his death, Kukard was convinced he would get a conviction, despite his dwindling list of witnesses.

In April 2000, Julio Bascelli, who had information regarding Avissar's murder, was killed.

He was sitting in his vehicle at a petrol station at the Modderfontein off-ramp, near the N3 highway, when he was shot in the head. The case remains unsolved.

Another witness, Carlo Binne, was killed in a drive-by shooting in April 2001.

“He was leaving the Gecko Lounge nightclub and was shot four times before he reached his car,” said Kriger, explaining another unsolved murder.

Both Bascelli and Binne had made damning statements against Saadt.

Undaunted by the loss of three star witnesses, Kukard pressed on. At Crane's funeral, he commented that her death weighed heavily on him, as he had accepted her decision when she turned down the security he had offered her.

Less than two months later, Kukard died of a heart attack after collapsing in his home.

It was Kukard's death that ultimately led to the withdrawal of the case against Saadt, a development that Kriger wryly described as “a pathetic joke”.

“The key witnesses are dead, but we had others. There were more people who could testify but they all withdrew in fear. They all claimed they feared for their lives,” he said.

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