Security of diamonds not foolproof: Minister

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…Minister Sello distances self from his secretary who was arrested for illegally peddling diamonds

Bereng Mpaki

THE Minister of Mining, Keketso Sello, says the systems aimed at securing the country’s diamonds “may not be foolproof after all”.

Mr Sello said this in the wake of last Monday’s damaging scandal where his private secretary, Refiloe Mokone, was arrested by South Africa’s elite crime fighting unit, the Hawks, after being found in illegal possession of diamonds that had been smuggled out of Lesotho.

Ms Mokone, who was traveling in the minister’s official vehicle, was arrested along with three men who are not public servants and the quartet briefly appeared in the Ladybrand Magistrates’ Court last Tuesday.

Minister Sello also angrily denied any involvement in the smuggling of diamonds from Lesotho to South Africa and other international destinations.

In a statement last week, the Hawks, said it arrested Ms Mokone and three male accomplices after a tipoff that the quartet were peddling unpolished diamonds worth M100 000.

“Refiloe Mokone (42), Bokang Nthatisi (25), Bakoena Mokoena (24), and Mandla Ntsibande (26), appeared at the Ladybrand Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday after they were arrested by the Hawks’ Serious Organised Crime unit on Monday for allegedly dealing in diamonds,” the Hawks said.

“The suspects were arrested around Ladybrand in the Free State Province following a tipoff that they were reportedly peddling unpolished diamonds. The diamonds worth approximately R100 000 were seized from the group following the arrest.

“All four have been remanded in custody and are facing charges of dealing and illegal possession of diamonds. The matter has been postponed to 19 December 2018 for a bail application.”

The incident has sent shockwaves in the government with Mining Ministry Spokesperson Rorisang Mahlo saying they were in “total shock” as “this is not the way in which Lesotho diamonds are exported”.

He said the ministry had no idea where Ms Mokone got the diamonds as those in the ministry’s care were still intact.

And on Monday an emotionally charged Mr Sello, who had remained tightlipped since news of the arrest of his secretary broke last week, distanced himself from the smuggling of diamonds. He said he had been away on holiday in Mozambique when the incident occurred.

He further said that the only errand he had assigned his secretary was to ensure that his wool was collected from Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) storage facility in Maseru and transported to the Lesotho Wool Centre at Thaba Bosiu. Lesotho recently held its first local auction of wool and mohair in Thaba Bosiu.

Speaking in Maseru on Monday, Mr Sello said, “I am surprised like everyone else about the incident, I’m totally shocked”.

“I have nothing to do with her (Ms Mokone’s) business of carrying diamonds in Ladybrand with the people she was with.”

He said it was unfair that his name has been dragged through the mud despite the fact that there was nothing directly linking him to the smuggling of diamonds. He said he was willing to testify in court if it came to that.

The minister also accused some unnamed media houses of leading the mudslinging campaign against him without bothering to check the facts with him.

“I dare you to follow up on this matter to conclusion and when you have established that I am innocent, you should go ahead and make the same noise that you are making now to clear my name that you have tarnished.

“I know you journalists. As soon as you don’t find anything that is scandalous about me, you are going to turn away and look for something juicier, leaving my name in tatters. You should be here until the end to clear my name.”

He however, conceded that the security system needs to be revisited to combat diamond smuggling.

“There are very strict security measures for anyone to enter our mine premises and reach where the diamonds are recovered. But it seems that our systems may not be foolproof after all if we are still experiencing incidents of diamonds being smuggled out,” the minister said.

On his part, Pheello Tjatja, the Acting Commissioner of Mines, said the confiscated diamonds in the ministry’s care were still intact. He said the diamonds are kept in secure premises and adequately guarded. He further said that the register of the diamonds is maintained and reconciled annually by the Commissioner of Mines and the Commissioner of Police.

Last week, Mr Mahlo, said that diamonds were exported under heavy and strict security in a process where all stakeholders such as the mining company, ministry and Lesotho Revenue Authority officials are involved. He further said that diamonds were exported by air and not by road.

He said diamond security is provided in layers by the army personnel outside protected areas, police personnel and NSS officers inside the mines. There were also closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras for added security.

Over the years, there have been cases of diamond smuggling and back in 2014, the then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili spoke of a new “diamond rush” that had hit the Leribe and Butha-Buthe districts characterised by illegal diamond trading and smuggling into South Africa.

“This is an unfortunate situation because Lesotho signed the Kimberly Process Agreement as a way of curbing illicit diamonds,” Dr Mosisili said at the time.

That same year, a diamond smuggling ring involving two police constables, four Basotho men and two South Africans of Indian origin was busted by the Maputsoe Police.

More recently in September 2017, Ntemekoane Chapa of Maseru and Nthule Lets’olo of Maputsoe were handed a six-year jail sentence after being found in illegal possession of diamonds.

The police found two diamonds in their possession, one a rough 11.33 carat diamond worth M41 991 and the other a polished 2.87 carat diamond worth M 120 558.

The accused told the police that they bought the diamonds from a man who obtained them at Kao Mine.

Despite these and other statistics, Mr Mahlo said incidents of diamond smuggling were very low with an average of just three cases being reported annually. He said these were for diamonds below 100 carats.

He said the Maputsoe border in Leribe and the Calendonspoort border in Butha-Buthe were the hotspots for diamond smuggling.

“While we cannot say much about unreported cases, the statistics show that on average, we have three cases of diamond smuggling per year and it is for diamonds that are under 100 carats.

“So, this information does not agree with the common belief that this country is losing many diamonds due to smuggling. We however, appeal to people who suspect that diamond smuggling to come forward and report to the police,” Mr Mahlo said.

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