Friday, June 27, 2008

SA's top cop ordered to stand trial

A day after having his contract renewed by none other than El Presidente Mbeki himself, the country’s top cop goes on trial for corruption, bribery and defeating the ends of justice.

Somebody check inside Mbeki’s skull for traces of brain matter.

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A court on Thursday ordered the nation's top cop to stand trial on corruption charges next year, widening a leadership vacuum in law enforcement agencies struggling to control one of the world's highest crime rates.

Jackie Selebi is accused of accepting bribes from a businessman who was convicted of drug smuggling and of trying to shield him from prosecution. Selebi has been on a leave of absence from the police commissioner post since he was charged last February, when he also quit as president of Interpol.

The head of the National Prosecuting Authority is also suspended as part of a bitter turf war against the police, and tensions within the police led to an armed standoff in downtown Johannesburg late Wednesday.

On Thursday, a Johannesburg magistrate's court dismissed calls from Selebi's lawyer that the case be dismissed and said Selebi would go on trial in the High Court next April.

Prosecutors allege that Glen Agliotti gave Selebi cash handouts whenever he demanded. In return, the prosecuting authority said, Selebi turned a blind eye to Agliotti's involvement in transporting large quantities of illegal drugs, and tipped him off that British investigators were on his trail. Selebi has denied any wrongdoing.

Ahead of Thursday's court appearance, President Thabo Mbeki extended Selebi's contract by another year.

"The fact that a person has been charged does not mean he is guilty," Mbeki said Thursday of his old friend.

But opposition parties and many commentators say Mbeki's determination to protect Selebi sends the wrong signals to the criminal underworld.

South Africa is notorious for its rampant crime, with more than 50 murders per day and the highest reported rape rate in the world. Yearly crime statistics to be released next Monday will reveal whether the government has made any headway in tackling the violence which may deter many fans from the 2010 World Cup.

Mbeki's treatment of Selebi stands in contrast to his treatment of Vusi Pikoli, who was summarily suspended from his post as chief prosecutor in September after he issued a warrant for Selebi's arrest.

Pikoli's successor then ordered an independent investigation by outside legal experts who recommended Selebi be charged.

Pikoli is currently in the midst of prolonged public hearings on his "fitness to hold office," for allegedly failing to inform his political bosses that he was about to go after the police chief.

There is widespread concern that the protracted turf war between Selebi's police force and Pikoli's prosecuting authority is hampering the fight against crime.

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