Tanya Waterworth and SAPA

WHILE there was jubilation outside the Durban Magistrate’s Court yesterday as 18 members of the SAPS Cato Manor Organised Crime Unit were released on bail, the Acting Head of Durban’s Organised Crime Unit admitted his office was in crisis during questioning in court yesterday.

Meanwhile, at a press briefing at the Elangeni Hotel at lunchtime, the new National Police Commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, and National Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa were reluctant to comment on the Cato Manor drama unfolding in court a couple of kilometres away.

While there has been much speculation as to a possible link between arrests of 20 members of the Cato Manor Unit occuring within days of the new commissioner’s appointment, Phiyega, who was in Durban on a “meet and greet” with MECs from across the country, dismissed such rumours as unfounded.

“It was coincidental. This investigation has been a protracted and complex process and has been in place for a while,” she said, adding that Hawks members were brought from out of the province to bring an objectivity and neutrality to the case.

Asked to comment on what has been criticised as a heavy-handed approach to the arrests of the officers at their homes and so deliberately humiliating them, Phiyega said “arrests had to be made”.

She said it was important that police members keep focused on their duties.

Mthethwa said the matter was sub judice, but added that officers having to arrest their colleagues showed their commitment in keeping South Africa safe.

Meanwhile, back in court, the manner in which the officers were arrested at their homes in a dawn blitz and not at their offices, where they had gathered on Tuesday night to hand themselves over, came under the spotlight.

Advocate Guido Penzhorn grilled investigating officer Colonel Frans Khola about the seven-day delay between the issuing of the arrest and search warrants and effecting the arrests.

The search warrants included computer records from the men’s homes, which delay in arrests could have allowed the accused plenty of time to tamper with any alleged evidence.

In opposing bail, the State has expressed concern over possible tampering with evidence and possible interference with witnesses should the accused be freed on bail.

In further cross-examination, Khola said that although some of the officers were not directly involved in the alleged murders, they had been charged with murder.

He said this was because they were part of the operation that resulted in the deaths of suspects.

“This is all about common purpose.”

It emerged that one of the officers, Johnny Smith, was not a member of the Cato Manor unit at the time of the 2008 murder for which he is accused. He was part of the police’s gambling unit.

When Durban Organised Crime Unit Acting Commander Colonel M Mngengwe took the stand and was being questioned by Penzhorn over handling of dockets, he admitted “my office is in crisis”.

Investigating officers from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate also took the stand, providing detail into their investigations regarding suspects being killed and witnesses allegedly threatened.

For a second day in the row, former national police commissioner Bheki Cele arrived in court, where he chatted to wives and girlfriends of the accused.

The former top cop, who openly declared “shoot to kill” in his war on crime, was warmly greeted by members of many police units, who squeezed into the packed courtroom in a show of support for their colleagues.

There was heavy security both in and outside the court.

In his closing argument, Penzhorn described the State’s case as weak at best and that the State had failed to provide any evidence that the accused would interfere with witnesses or tamper with evidence.

Granting bail and releasing the men on R5 000 bail each, Magistrate Sharon Marks ordered them to report to their nearest police station every Friday and not to contact any witnesses.

They are expected to appear in court again on August 24.

Charges against two other officers were withdrawn on Thursday.