By Billy Ntaote and Sentle Rathebe
MASERU – The President of the Thabang Local Court in Mokhotlong, Maneo Mohapi, yesterday won his protracted battle to return to work after the Constitutional Court permanently stayed criminal charges against her.
While serving as a Clerk of Court at the Mapoteng Local Court in 2003 before her promotion in 2006, Mohapi allegedly misappropriated about M1 499.50 belonging to the government.
She was later surcharged and ordered to repay the money in monthly installments of M124.56 on December 8, 2006.
The Constitutional Court, after heated submissions on why criminal charges against Mohapi in the Berea Magistrate Court dating as far back as 2006 were never prosecuted, ordered that they be permanently stayed.
The ConCourt ruled the criminal charges before the Berea Magistrate Court infringe on Mohapi’s fundamental right to a fair trial.
According to a December 2006 letter signed by C.K. Kotelo on behalf of the then Ministry of Finance Principal Secretary surcharging Mohapi, the said offence took place on October 30, 2003.
In his submissions before the Constitutional Court presided over by Acting Chief Justice Tšeliso Monaphathi, Justice Chaka Makhoaoane and Justice Teboho Joseph Moiloa, Mohapi’s lawyer, Silas Ratau said the delayed criminal charges against his client were unreasonable as she had completed paying the last installment of the surcharge by July 2008.
Justice Moiloa told crown counsel Advocate Sekati Makhele that the case had dragged for too long and Mohapi stands to suffer double prejudice as she had already fully settled the surcharge.
Justice Moiloa questioned why Mohapi was only suspended in 2011 for an offence committed in 2003 which had dragged on for so long with crown counsel failing to make appearances and even issue a warrant of arrest to ensure the accused attended trial.
The judge added for five years the crown had clearly lost interest in the case as it only resurfaced in 2011 after a five-year silence.
Making his submissions, Advocate Ratau told the court given the nature of the charge against his client there was no reason for the case to be taking so long to be prosecuted.
He said while Mohapi could have initially failed to show up for trial when the case was first set down for hearing in June 2006, it was unreasonable for the matter not to be heard until November 2011.
Ratau said witnesses who could have testified in her favour on the criminal charges have since passed away.
The three witnesses who have passed away were Mohapi’s colleagues when she was working at the Mapoteng Local Court, Ratau said, adding one of them who was also a co-accused served as Clerk of Court while the other two were messengers of court.
Ratau said his client maintains that the deceased would have testified that after selling goods at the court auctions, they would retain the money for safekeeping at their own private residences as the court did not have a safe.
He submitted without the witnesses, Mohapi would be prejudiced as the crown had failed to prosecute the matter on time.
Ratau said when Mohapi was suspended in 2011, it was not even clear who had suspended her as the message was communicated verbally by a magistrate.
“Our submission is that if the magistrate had been delegated powers to suspend Mohapi, she should have done so in writing and not verbally,” Ratau said.
Ratau pleaded that Mohapi should be returned to active duty as she has been suspended under unclear circumstances since 2011.
In response to Ratau’s submissions, the crown counsel, Advocate Sekati Makhele argued that the delay in the prosecution of the case was caused merely by the applicant herself since she was not present on the first day of the hearing.
Makhele told the court that on June 12, 2006, on the date of the hearing, both the defense counsel and the accused were not present and again on June 19, 2006, the matter was set for June 21 and both the prosecution and the defense were not present before the Magistrate’s Court.
Makhele said the case had been somewhat unreasonable but argued Mohapi was also to blame for frustrating the processes by failing to appear before the court on the set down dates.
“She can’t be exonerated from proceedings as she is also to blame,” Makhele said.
In the end, however, Makhele agreed the suspension was irregular.