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Army commander Letsoela speaks on “smuggled” cannabis

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  • says “smuggler” employs underage children to traffick medical cannabis into SA,
  • alleges “smuggler” attempted to bribe army officer to release “contraband” to him.

Pascalinah Kabi

LESOTHO Defence Force (LDF) Commander Lieutenant General (Lt-Gen) Mojalefa Letsoela has broken his silence over the medical cannabis which was seized by the army as it was allegedly being smuggled into neighbouring South Africa in January this year.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Express yesterday, the media-shy army boss yesterday said although the High Court had ordered the army to return 53 bags of medical cannabis to licensed local grower, Magic Dragon Medical, he would not comply because the court had not explained why “exhibits in a smuggling investigation must be returned to a suspect”.

He sensationally accused Magic Dragon Director, Isaac Joseph, of attempting to bribe an army officer who commanded the operation which led to the seizure of the cannabis in Butha-Buthe as it was about to be “smuggled” into South Africa.

He also accused Mr Joseph, also known as Isaac Malebaleba, of running an illegal operation which employed underage children to smuggle cannabis into South Africa.

Lt-Gen Letsoela gave the interview against the background of a 16 March 2021 High Court judgement by Justice Tšeliso Monaphathi ordering the army to return the seized cannabis to Mr Joseph’s company.

This after the company had petitioned the court to order the release of the cannabis. Last month, the army said it had seized 53 bags of medical cannabis as they were being smuggled into South Africa by a licensed medical cannabis grower in Lesotho.

At the time, an officer in the LDF public affairs office, Lance Corporal Pule Maseela, said preliminary investigations by the military intelligence had shown that the cannabis had originated from one of the licensed local producers. He said the investigations pointed to the likelihood of tax avoidance by cannabis producers as the reason for smuggling medical cannabis.

“The LDF’s military intelligence had received a tip-off about the planned illegal exportation of the cannabis to a South African farmer along the national boundary in Butha-Buthe.

“The army also managed to apprehend a 23-year old male suspect when he was about to hand over the cannabis to a South African man who owns a farm on the other side of the boundary near the Mohakare River,” Lance Corporal Maseela said.

Magic Dragon later claimed the seized cannabis as theirs. The company denied any wrongdoing and Mr Joseph subsequently filed a court application for the release of the cannabis.

Lt-Gen Letsoela and the Attorney General’s office were the first and second respondents respectively in the ultimately successful application.

“It is ordered that the continued seizure, confiscation and/or withholding of the applicant’s bags of cannabis flowers/buds by the 1st respondent (Lt-Gen Letsoela) and/or officers subordinate to him be and is hereby declared as null and void and of no force and effect,” Justice Monaphathi ruled on 16 March 2021.

“The 1st respondent and/or officers subordinate to him are hereby directed to release or cause to be released, the applicant’s bags of cannabis flowers/buds. There is no order as to costs,” Justice Monaphathi added.

Almost two weeks later, Mr Joseph says the army still has not returned his cannabis.

He accuses Lt-Gen Letsoela of holding on to the cannabis in apparent contempt of court even though he and a court messenger had served the army boss with the court order on Thursday. He denied ever smuggling cannabis, saying the cannabis which was seized by the army had been stolen from his company.

He said instead of returning the cannabis, a fuming Lt-Gen Letsoela had called him later that Thursday evening threatening to kill him.

“Unfortunately, we still have not received the consignment and I don’t know if we will ever get it back,” Mr Joseph said in a weekend interview with this publication.

“I went to the army offices on Thursday with a messenger of the court. However, I was shocked later that day when the commander personally called me on my cell phone.

“He was fuming, saying he has seen a court order which had been awarded to my company. He reminded me that he is the army commander and he will not return the cannabis. He said he would rather go to jail and even when comes out, he will not release the cannabis.

“He (Letsoela) told me that if he wants me, he can pick me up anytime. I kept asking myself, if Ntate Letsoela comes to pick me, where will he take me to? Is he going to kill me for my business? But I am prepared to die for my business. Soldiers can come and shoot me. There is no problem.

“Honestly, I don’t know what interest the commander has in the cannabis. His refusal to release our stolen product which was found by his army officers is really shocking,” Mr Joseph said.

Asked which particular words uttered by Lt-Gen Letsoela made him believe that the army boss wanted to kill him, Mr Joseph said “when he said he can come and pick me up, he was fuming.

“This court order has made him so furious that he indicated that he can pick me up if he wants to. Soldiers do not arrest people and so when he says he can pick me up, where will he be taking me to?

“Based on Ntate Letsoela’s threats to us, we will even approach the Southern African Development Community,” he said.

Yesterday Lt-Gen Letsoela admitted that he called Mr Joseph on Thursday. He however, denied threatening to kill him or making any other threats. He said there was no way he could release the cannabis when it would be used as an exhibit in a criminal case of smuggling. He said their investigations had shown that the medical cannabis being smuggled out of the country belonged to Mr Joseph who he referred to as Isaac Malebaleba. He said although Mr Joseph was a licensed grower, he was smuggling medical cannabis out of the country.

“After receiving the court order, I called Ntate Malebaleba,” Lt-Gen Letsoela said. I asked him to desist from using his financial muscle to destabilise this country through smuggling.

“I told him I’m questioning the court order because I have a right to question both lawful and unlawful things in this country unless it is done by His Majesty. I am the commander of the army and the peace and stability of this country rest on my shoulders.

“Why should I release the cannabis? The cannabis was impounded at the border while being smuggled out of the country.”

Lt-Gen Letsoela said the army had intelligence reports of the planned smuggling of the cannabis and they were thus able to foil the smuggling shortly before midnight on 13 January 2021.

“Our operation was intelligence-led. We knew that they were going to smuggle the cannabis and we knew the place where it was going to be smuggled out of the country.

“The cannabis belongs to Isaac Malebaleba, a Mosotho businessman who resides in Ha Makhoathi. He was awarded a licence to operate in the medical cannabis industry in Lesotho. He is supposed to operate within the confines of the laws of this country. I did not write those laws but the legislative authorities did.”

Lt-Gen Letsoela accused Mr Joseph of employing vulnerable underage children in his smuggling operations.

“Isaac is leading a smuggling syndicate in Butha-Buthe composed of young children. I need you to emphasise that these are underage children being exploited by a businessman.

“He uses them to smuggle the cannabis while he is peacefully sleeping at his house. He pays them M1200 for smuggling the cannabis. He personally leads the syndicate that smuggles cannabis in Butha-Buthe, taking advantage of the vulnerability of those children. These are school going children. Imagine if it was your own child.

“In fact, this would have been the fourth consignment smuggled out of the country. Three consignments have already been smuggled out. I am responsible for guarding this country’s boundaries and after identifying that this was a frequent practice, we decided to impound the cannabis.

“We knew beforehand the exact time, mode of transport and who was going to receive the cannabis on the other side. I had gathered all that information and I personally issued lawful orders to the officer commanding Butha-Buthe to conduct the operation (to intercept and seize the cannabis),” Lt-Gen Letsoela said.

He further accused Mr Joseph of attempting to solicit the help of unnamed cabinet ministers to instruct him to release the confiscated cannabis. This after Mr Joseph’s failed attempts to bribe the army officer who commanded the operation, one Captain Boiketsiso Fonane.

“He has approached ministers to instruct me to release the cannabis to him. This failed because the ministers told him he must first answer for this (alleged smuggling) and he is now using the media to attack my integrity by saying I threatened to kill him. I did not threaten to kill him. He even attempted to bribe an officer commanding the operation,” Lt-Gen Letsoela said.

Over the weekend, this publication heard an audio recording of a telephone conversation said to be between Captain Fonane and Mr Joseph. The conversation is said to have taken place shortly after the army seized the cannabis in January.

In the audio, the person believed to be Mr Joseph is heard saying he wants to negotiate a “man to man deal” with Captain Fonane “which would be the start of a relationship that will never come to an end”.

“Can I come there tomorrow for us to finalise this matter? I have no problem with the matter being taken to the police because I have a (medical cannabis) licence but the problem is that the cannabis will be spoilt because it has been long since it left this place. I wanted to find out if you can say that I come in the morning for us to see how we can deal with this matter man to man.

“Let us not prolong this matter. Please have mercy on me. I am your Mosotho; I am your businessman and let us speak pure Sesotho. I am not accusing anyone, I just wanted to speak with you.

“Let us talk between us because you have already done a good job (of confiscating the cannabis). This is the start of a good relationship which will never end. You will see what I will do for you Fonane, just watch. Keep my cannabis there and you will see what I will do for you today or tomorrow when I come to get it. This is an arrangement between you and me,” the person who appears to be Mr Joseph is heard saying.

On his part, the person who appears to be Captain Fonane is heard saying, “I detest a situation where you come to me for us to have a conversation over the product which someone may come later claim as theirs after I have released it to you.

“It is not a problem Ntate Isaac. I want you to explain to me how you came to know of the confiscated cannabis. Does it belong to you? I will keep this product until I have been given instructions by my superiors.

“I want to help you Ntate but this matter is really deep, the army commander will call me and you will personally receive this product. This is not your first load being smuggled, this is the fourth load,” the person believed to be Captain Fonane says.

Mr Joseph, who had spoken to this publication on Friday, was not reachable yesterday to comment on the audio recording which the Sunday Express only heard yesterday.

Lt-Gen Letsoela would not be drawn to comment on it. The audio however, appears to back his claims that Mr Joseph attempted to bribe Captain Fonane.

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