Massive corruption exposed in metal-smuggling
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By Fred Kockott
International crime syndicates are smuggling vast amounts of precious metals stolen from mines in South Africa, allegedly paying millions to buy off mine employees and members of the South African Police Service.
They also use hit squads to eliminate people who pose a threat to their activities.
This lucrative, high-level corruption has been exposed in a joint, continuing police and Scorpions investigation dating back to 1999. It is now dubbed Project Yield and is one of the biggest organised crime investigations undertaken in South Africa.
More than 45 investigators are involved, as are international police. There has also been extensive surveillance and interception of communications in South Africa and Britain.
Due to the complexity, scale and secretive nature of unwrought precious metal smuggling operations, Project Yield has also made strong use of undercover agents, including seasoned criminals, to infiltrate the syndicates with a view to gathering evidence for successful prosecutions.
This is the picture that has emerged in an assets seizure case involving an alleged South African syndicate. This week Judge CP Rabie declared in the Pretoria high court that Project Yield had gathered a considerable body of evidence that might support convictions of a Johannesburg-based syndicate, the "Mountain Boys", and a wealthy South African expatriate, Bobby Boekhoud, 48, who owns a metal refinery in Britain.
Arrested last year, Boekhoud and nine others face more than 112 charges, including racketeering, theft, fraud, forgery, money laundering and contraventions of the Mining Rights Act.
On Monday Rabie confirmed an assets seizure and restraint order against the accused and various business entities.
South Africa's Organised Crime Act provides for the confiscation of property and assets derived from criminal activities. The act allows the state to seize an accused's assets and appoint a curator to prevent the accused from disposing of the property prior to conviction.
When the interim assets seizure order was granted in October, the total value of the syndicate's allegedly illicit platinum group metals transactions, as identified in Project Yield's investigations, was estimated at more than R199 million.
Rabie said that in dealing with assets seizure applications the court did not decide on the veracity of evidence, but "needs only to be satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the trial judge may convict the defendants and that a confiscation order might be made".
He said in this instance, there was good reason to believe that the state's evidence could result in the successful prosecution of Boekhoud and his co-accused and "future convictions and confiscation orders".
Rabie upheld the assets seizure order. Thus far, the state has seized assets worth at least R45-million in South Africa, and through transnational prosecution services, another R60-million worth of assets in Britain.
These assets include Boekhoud's pub, The Fox Inn, in Folksworth, a tiny village north of London; more than a dozen up-market houses and holiday homes; 55 vehicles; 61 firearms; 95 bank accounts and life insurance policies; shares in various companies; three Nando's franchises; a BP petrol station and a python seized from one of Boekhoud's partners.
Giving background to the criminal case against Boekhoud and his co-accused, Rabie said that in 1999, representatives of one of South Africa's largest platinum mines approached the Scorpions to investigate the theft of platinum from the mines.
"Earlier operations in this regard had not been particularly successful as only low-level thieves and smugglers could be brought to justice," said Rabie.
The new investigation was planned at the outset as a long-term investigation aimed at successfully prosecuting syndicates, national buyers and illegal exporters of illicit platinum metals from South Africa.
Rabie said that platinum had a value more than double that of gold. He said there was a great demand in the underworld for platinum-group metals in any form, varying from low-grade to high-grade material.
South Africa possesses the world's largest reserves of platinum group metals - mostly mined near Rustenburg in North West province. Although these mines spend millions of rands each year on security, thefts continue at all levels of processing.
Rabie said that apart from the loss to the mining sector, the government also suffered huge losses in unpaid tax revenue and royalties.
He said Project Yield had exposed a chain of well-organised criminal activities - "wholly syndicate-driven with five different levels of hierarchy" - from miners at the rock face to international buyers. At all levels, law enforcement agencies were influenced, which made it particularly difficult to successfully investigate.
Rabie heard that Boekhoud was arrested at Johannesburg International Airport last October moments after he and his wife stepped off a flight from London for their annual South African holiday.
In a simultaneous "take-down operation" involving more than 500 police officers in Britain and South Africa, other members of the syndicate were arrested and assets seized in South Africa and abroad.
Contesting these asset seizures, Boekhoud argued in court papers that the allegations against him were hearsay and speculation. However, Rabie said there was a clear thread of evidence linking all the defendants to the larger operation starting in South Africa and ending abroad.
Boekhoud and others are scheduled to appear in the Johannesburg high court on July 31.