Nthane acquittal: Ex-Justice minister slams police, prosecution

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  • suspects corruption “messed up” state case,
  • warns rampant killings will continue “as long as criminals walk free”.

Moorosi Tsiane

FORMER Justice minister Kelebone Maope has slammed the police and prosecution for the shoddy job which resulted in the acquittal of murder-accused businessman, Tšeliso Nthane, a fortnight ago.

In an interview, Advocate Maope KC said given the high levels of corruption among police and prosecutors, graft could not be ruled out as the reason behind the weak state case which led to Mr Nthane’s acquittal.

He said as the nation was now “in real danger from criminals” who were allowed to walk free as a result of the incompetence or corruption of police officers and prosecutors.

Mr Nthane is one of the country’s foremost entrepreneurs with business interests in construction, property development and other sectors. He had been charged with the murder of his truck driver, Kopang Mohapi. He was alleged to have shot and killed Mr Mohapi on 10 January 2019 at ‘Moteng Pass in a fit of rage.

Mr Mohapi had been involved in a road accident at the Moteng Pass about 171 kilometres from Maseru while transporting construction machinery to Polihali in Mokhotlong for the Nthane Brothers company, which had just been awarded a M235 million road construction tender for the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

After the shooting, Mr Nthane handed himself over to the Butha-Buthe police station where a murder charge was preferred against him. Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane, who was then an ordinary High Court judge, presided over Mr Nthane’s bail application in January 2019 and released him on M5000 bail. His bail conditions were that he reports to the Butha-Buthe police on set dates, refrains from interfering with Crown witnesses and stands trial to finality.

Since that time, the trial had inexplicably failed to take off until 6 April 2022. But barely two days later on 8 April, it was over and Mr Nthane walked out a free man.

His acquittal by acting judge, Palesa Rantara, owes more to the incompetence of the prosecution rather than any exceptional work and robust defence by his lawyers.

Even though it had been submitted that there were numerous witnesses at the scene of the alleged crime, the prosecution, led by Advocate Motene Rafoneke, inexplicably choose to call in just two witnesses, Motiki Mokatse and Moeketsi Motsamai, who testified on 6 and 7 April 2022 respectively. Neither of the witnesses’ testimony was helpful to the prosecution’s case as they both testified that they did not actually see Mr Nthane pull the trigger and shoot Mr Mohapi dead.

A third witness had been lined up to testify but, in the end, Adv Rafoneke elected not to call him. He told the court that he had decided to drop the third witness after realising that his testimony would be “of no use to the case”.

With such a weak case and without any forensic reports from the investigation being presented to the court, Mr Nthane’s defence, spearheaded by Adv Motiea Teele, simply poked holes into the state case. Adv Teele then applied for the discharge of his client on the grounds that the state had failed to prove its case.

Justice Rantara, who had been appointed albeit in an acting capacity just two months ago and given the nod to try such a high-profile case ahead of more seasoned substantive judges, did not even have to sleep over whether or not to grant the application. She adjourned proceedings at about 11am on 8 April and at 3pm that same day, she reconvened the court and granted the application.

She concurred with Adv Teele that the state had indeed failed to prove its case.

The shoddy state case and the subsequent breath-taking speed with which Mr Nthane was acquitted has raised eyebrows and sparked even more questions about the integrity of the judiciary, which is not generally viewed in high esteem.

Speaking to the Lesotho Times, Adv Maope KC, who held various cabinet portfolios from 1986 to 2001, including that of justice minister, laid the blame at the doorstep of both the police and the prosecution.

He said a prosecutor could “make or break a case based on what their interest was as some of them are very corrupt”.

“Every case has its owner and that is the prosecutor. He is the one who prefers the charges and he has to present the evidence to the court,” said Adv Maope who also served as attorney general from 1986 to 1993.

“That alleged crime happened a long time ago in 2019 and there was sufficient time for an investigation. It is therefore appalling that there was little evidence presented before the courts. What has been happening all this time? The prosecution was supposed to have given evidence as to who killed the deceased and how he got killed.

“But I didn’t hear of any evidence from the experts saying how the deceased died. One was also expecting to see an expert on ballistics testifying.

“We also heard that there were many people at the scene (of the alleged crime). One would think they would have been called as witnesses but instead only two drivers (employed by Mr Nthane) were called to testify. They were put in a tricky situation (as they could not testify against their boss). It was a messy case indeed,” Adv Maope said.

He said corruption could not be ruled out for the shoddy job by the police and prosecutors.

“The blame is on the police and prosecution for presenting such a messy case to the court. I was once a prosecutor and I know that a prosecutor can be an experienced person who wants justice to be served or it can be an inexperienced person who can mess up the case.

“Again, there are corrupt prosecutors who do all they can to enable criminals to walk free. From experience some of the police will submit a weak case and we (prosecutors) will tell them to go back and find more evidence if we feel that something is lacking. Clean police officers will go back and do further investigations but the corrupt ones will make the docket disappear and thus destroy the case.

“There is so much corruption among prosecutors lately and one cannot really tell what happened. But I am putting most of the blame on the police because they are the one who investigate cases.”

He said the shoddy work of the police and prosecutors enabled criminals to walk free. As a result, the nation was in “real danger” because without deterrent sentences, criminals were emboldened to continue with the rampant killings.

“When someone has died, there has to be an inquest to establish how the deceased died. That is no longer happening because the police are no longer following the right procedures. Criminals can be deterred from committing crimes when they know that they will be arrested and sent to prison. But if they continue walking free then the crime rate will continue to grow. We are indeed in real danger,” Adv Maope said.

Last year, Lesotho was ranked first in Africa and sixth in the world for murders by the respected World Population Review organisation.

El Salvador is the murder capital of the world. Apart from El Salvador, only Honduras (2nd ranked), Venezuela (3rd), the Virgin Islands (4th) and Jamaica (5th) are ranked higher than Lesotho. All these are mostly failed Latin American and Caribbean states where criminal drug lords reign supreme.

Lesotho achieved a score of 41, 25 murders per 100 000 people. This is way higher than the world average murder rate of 7, 03 murders per 100 000 people, according to World Population Review. Lesotho being lumped in the category of states in which lawlessness reigns supreme is seen causing further economic stagnation as investors will not put their money in a place where they won’t feel safe.

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