‘It now seems to be the tradition to postpone these high-profile cases, and this should not be tolerated because it affects the reputation of this court and all the courts in this country, says Justice Tšeliso Monaphathi
HIGH Court judge Justice Tšeliso Monaphathi this week expressed concern at the continued postponement of cases involving high-profile suspects.
Justice Monaphathi made the remark on Tuesday when he had to postpone the corruption trial of former Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs Minister Timothy Thahane to 26 November 2014.
The postponement came after Dr Thahane’s lawyer told the court that he was not aware that the case was scheduled to proceed this week.
Dr Thahane is facing two counts of fraud for allegedly swindling the government of over M24 million in 2008 through the Block Farming Project, when he was still Finance and Development Planning Minister.
The case first went before the High Court on 12 August 2014 for set-down, but the hearing schedule of 12, 13 and 14 November 2014, which had been suggested by both prosecution and defense counsel, could not be confirmed after Dr Thahane’s lawyer, Qhalehang Letsika, argued the state had refused to give his client the witnesses’ statements.
Justice Tšeliso Monaphathi then ordered the prosecution to provide the defence with the documents in question, pointing out it was the accused’s right to have such statements.
According to Justice Monaphathi, the prosecution’s reasons for refusing to provide the statements as requested were “vague and not genuine”.
Justice Monaphathi—who made this observation after the prosecution had argued if certain documents and statements were released to Dr Thahane, ongoing investigations pertaining to other individuals the crown had not disclosed might be jeopardised—then postponed the case to 1 September 2014 .
“This reason is ingenious and I don’t accept it. Why don’t you give him photocopies and keep the originals?
“This issue of statements doesn’t make any sense to me. It is not his business if the statements also involve a different case. It is his right to have those statements so that he can prepare for his defence.
“This matter is postponed to 1 September to enable the crown to deliver statements to the accused and that date is only for mention. And on that day, I may end up confirming those dates that have been suggested. At the moment, those dates are provisional,” Justice Monaphathi said.
However, the trial was then scheduled for 11 November 2014, but Dr Thahane’s lawyer, Mr Letsika took the court by surprise when he argued he and his client were not prepared to proceed with the case. According to the lawyer, the trial dates—12, 13 and 14 November 2014—were only provisional and subject to confirmation, hence his surprise to see the court’s roll indicating the case was scheduled for Tuesday until Friday this week.
Mr Letsika said: “When the court adjourned in August, the case was postponed to 1 September for set-down on condition that in the meantime, the prosecution served us with the docket.
“We also suggested 12, 13 and 14 November as provisional dates for the hearing, which were to be confirmed on the 1st of September.
“But on 1 September, the court did not convene and as far as we are concerned, the dates still remain provisional.
“I was surprised to see the matter placed on the roll for the trial today (Tuesday).
“I had earlier intimated that I would not be alone when the trial proceeds because my client wanted to have two counsel to represent him.”
However, Mr Letsika’s argument was challenged by Justice Monaphathi, who asked if he was not the one who had proposed the days in question.
But while admitting he had suggested the schedule, the lawyer maintained he believed they were only provisional dates which still needed confirmation.
However, the lawyer prosecuting the case, Advocate Guido Penzhorn said the hearing dates had been confirmed in August after their suggestion by Mr Letsika himself.
“I notice the accused (Dr Thahane) is not before court and perhaps Mr Letsika can explain why he is not here.
“It was agreed that the docket should be given to the defence by the 1st of September and it was accordingly done, and the matter was set to proceed on 12, 13 and 14 November.
“How can the matter be scheduled for three days only for set-down, if it was not for trial? The crown is now ready to proceed with the case,” he said.
After this pronouncement, the trial started in the absence of Dr Thahane, who however, joined the proceedings about 25 minutes later after the judge pressed Mr Letsika on his whereabouts.
Although Justice Monaphathi subsequently postponed the case to 26 November, he raised concern over the frequent postponements of high-profile cases.
“I need to make the remark that the court is concerned about several postponements of cases involving high-profile people.
“It now seems to be the tradition to postpone these high-profile cases. This is very costly to taxpayers, and I repeat this should not be tolerated. It is those taxpayers who complain day in and day out about cases in courts. This is important because it affects the reputation of this court and all the courts in this country. Taxpayers see us drawing our salaries for postponing cases and that perception is for us to remove,” Justice Monaphathi said, adding the trail would continue on 26, 27 and 28 November as well as on 2 and 3 December this year.
According to the charge-sheet, Dr Thahane allegedly misrepresented to Standard Lesotho Bank on 6 June 2008, that the then Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili and Minister of Agriculture Ralechate ‘Mokose had endorsed the Block Farming project for vegetable farmers at Temo-‘Moho, Mpharane Agricultural Association of Leribe, resulting in government losing M18 092 587.50.
The second count relates to Dr Thahane’s alleged misrepresentation to Standard Lesotho Bank that fuel supplied to Temo-‘Moho, totaling M6 076 502.68, was payable by the Bank to the suppliers, Engen Lesotho Limited.
However, the state argues M4.8million had already been paid out to Temo-‘Moho by individual farmers, which Dr Thahane was aware of.
Thahane made his first appearance in the Maseru Magistrate’s Court on November 4 last year and was allowed to go home after paying M10 000 bail and M100 000 surety.
He was also ordered to report to the DCEO investigators every last Friday of the month, as part of the bail conditions.