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Why won’t the NPA let me talk to Gerrie Nel?

By Adriaan Basson

Since he and his team successfully prosecuted Jackie Selebi, the National Prosecuting Authority is refusing to grant me an interview with Advocate Gerrie Nel.

Why?

Nel and his team were the architects of Operation Bad Guys — one of the Scorpions’ final investigations that netted Selebi, Glenn Agliotti, Clinton Nassif and a host of other baddies.

Their “domino” method of investigation — first knocking over the “smaller” crooks, then going for the “big” ones — had been controversial from the start and is still attracting criticism and praise.

Nel and his former boss, Vusi Pikoli, argued that a corrupt police chief was the biggest threat to our democracy and that’s why they needed to make deals with devils to get to the top.

Their strategy has borne fruit. Selebi is going to prison for 15 years (unless his appeal succeeds), Agliotti and Nassif both pleaded guilty on drug-trafficking charges, three foreigners who were part of the drug syndicate pleaded guilty and were sentenced to imprisonment, and Stefanos Paparas, his father Dimitri and truck driver Stanley Poonin are still on trial for the same hashish bust.

Nel and his team were also aiming to put Agliotti behind bars for allegedly masterminding Brett Kebble’s murder, but were abruptly removed from the case by Pikoli’s successor, Menzi Simelane, in March.

The case is continuing in the South Gauteng High Court but at this stage things are looking gloomy for the state’s new team.

Back to Nel: after Selebi’s conviction I sent NPA spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga and head of communications Bulelwa Makeke a request to interview Nel and his team.

I even listed topics I intended asking them about: their thoughts about successfully prosecuting the former police chief, the importance of this prosecution for the NPA, lessons learned from the prosecution and why their strategy was successful.

Mhaga responded via email: “I am sure you are aware that the case has not been finalised and that even after sentencing a possibility exists that the accused may appeal, it is therefore not possible to have interviews with the team at this stage.”

Makeke also responded: “It would be prudent for us to wait until the matter has been taken to its ultimate conclusion before we make public pronouncements, especially those beyond the NPA’s position that it is happy with the conviction and that the outcome is a clear reflection of proper administration of justice.

“As you are aware, both sides will still go through the judgment and the defence particularly might consider its alternatives, which may include an appeal process. For this reason, we believe it is premature to have such in-depth interviews at this point and we may have to review that position on final conclusion of all proceedings.”

I pointed out to them several occasions in the recent and distant past (think Eugene Terre’Blanche’s murder case and the prosecution of Schabir Shaik) where prosecutors were allowed to speak to journalists during or after criminal trials. But they didn’t budge. Makeke said the NPA would reconsider its position after Selebi had been sentenced.

Sentencing came and went and I once again sent Mhaga and Makeke a request to interview Nel. Mhaga responded rapidly: “Our position in respect of your request remains the same in view of the pending appeal application by the defence. We will only entertain requests for interviews with the prosecution team after the appeal is finalised.”

I am sorry, but I don’t get it. Here is a man who has just successfully prosecuted the former police chief of corruption without having available any bank statements to prove the flow of money.

I have a lot of questions to ask him, but unfortunately the NPA won’t let me. Why? Because there might be an appeal pending, and Selebi might have his conviction overturned and the NPA then might be embarrassed about some of the things Nel might have said.

Would it be cynical of me to wonder whether Nel’s bosses are perhaps not as excited as him about this mammoth victory?