Thai rhino accused a flight risk
A shout of “Amandla!” and applause. That was how the women in green greeted magistrate Eric Mhlari’s decision not to grant Chumlong Lemtongthai bail.
The women in green were ANC Women’s League members, and they and several animal rights organisations were relieved on Thursday.
“I thought it was going to go the other way, I was just so stressed. I thought he was getting bail,” said rhino rights activist Selomie Maritz.
The court found that Thai national Lemtongthai was too much of a flight risk, even though he had handed in his passport to authorities, and his attorney, Alwyn Griebenow, had argued that his client had yet to be convicted and constitutionally was eligible for bail.
It took Mhlari more than an hour to read his detailed judgment on Thursday afternoon.
He told the court he had had to weigh up several issues that had been raised during the two days of the bail hearing.
These included the fact that Lemtongthai had no family in South Africa, had no fixed address, and the difficulty experienced in extraditing someone from Thailand.
He said another important consideration had been the possibility of Lemtongthai interfering with witnesses.
“It is not impossible for a person to obtain travel documents, or even flee without any at all,” the magistrate said.
He told the court that “the State fears that there is the possibility the accused might flee the country, as there is nothing binding the accused to the country. Thus it is my inevitable conclusion that bail is refused.”
Earlier, State prosecutor Allen Simpson had a protesters’ banner brought before the magistrate. He told the court that the case had generated a lot of public interest and this had to be taken into account during the bail application.
The defence countered that this had nothing to do with the legal system and amounted to little more than a lynch mob.
Lemtongthai is accused of running a syndicate that used Thai prostitutes and strippers, who would pose as hunters.
His modus operandi allegedly was to obtain legal trophy permits to shoot rhinos. The permits would be in the names of the Thai women.
Earlier, the court heard that the women didn’t shoot the animals, but posed alongside the carcasses for photographs.
The State said 26 rhinos had been shot this way, and Lemtongthai had sold the horns for R65 000 a kilogram.
He is charged with contravening the Customs and Excise Act, and fraud.
However, Griebenow told the court on Thursday his client made R25 000 a month, but that he owned a Hummer worth R300 000 and had furniture valued at more than R800 000.
He had two houses worth R500 000 and another R3.5 million in Thailand.
“We had considered getting one of his family members to come over,” said Griebenow on Thursday after the hearing. “If his family was willing to travel all the way here, why would he be a flight risk? My client told me that if bail was not granted, he will pursue the case.”
Lemtongthai will be in court again on September 15 to decide on a trial date.
Outside court on Thursday, the leader of the ANC Women’s League contingent, Sally Peterson, said it was just one small victory for animal rights.
“You touch an animal, you touch a woman,” she said.