Photo: African News Agency (ANA).
The hopes of two alleged rhino poachers to have charges dropped against them were dashed when the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, turned down their bid.

Pretoria lawyer Joseph Joshua Wilkinson and pilot David Jacobus Steyn are facing several charges along with eight co-accused. They are believed to be part of a syndicate operated by game farmer Hugo Ras.

Their criminal trial was, however, put on hold for more than a year pending the outcome of their constitutional challenge to the regulations underpinning some of the charges.

They challenged various environmental regulations relating to the illegal possession, sale and transport of rhino horn.

Wilkinson and Steyn asked Judge Daisy Molefe to declare the reverse onus provisions contained in the legislation in terms of which they were charged, unconstitutional or invalid.

According to the men, these provisions posed a threat to their right to a fair trial, which includes a right to be presumed innocent, remain silent and not to testify during the proceedings.

The pair is also hoping that several of the charges brought against them are “unconstitutional” because they relate to the moratorium that was introduced in August 2008 regarding the domestic sale and trade in rhino horn, which had earlier been overturned.

That ruling is, however, being challenged before a full bench later in the year.

The two accused, on the other hand, said it was unfair to expect them to face a lengthy trial and then only to vent these objections at the end. But Judge Molefe dismissed this argument.

She said the criminal trial had not yet started and the charges are yet to be adjudicated upon. The judge said they cannot expect this court to decide on the constitutionality of the provisions of the various ordinances. This was an issue which should be handled by the criminal court, she said.

“This premature application, in my opinion, further delays justice,” Judge Molefe said.

In turning down the application, she commented: “It is common knowledge that in the last few decades, rhino poaching has been rife and had become a problem nationally and internationally.

“The conservation of rhinos remains an uphill challenge. Each year the number of rhinos poached increases. There is also an increased demand for rhino horns and organised crime syndicates have become involved in the ruthless international trade and export of rhino horns.”

The judge concluded that the reverse onus provisions contained in the provincial ordinances were justified in light of the serious concerns regarding conservation of wildlife, especially rhinos.

Judge Molefe said “this court marks its displeasure with this route taken by the applicants” (in turning to the civil court).