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Diamond smuggling: Minister’s aide busted by SA Police

  • Minister Sello’s secretary and two male accomplices detained in SA ahead of 19 December court appearance

Bereng Mpaki

MINING Minister Keketso Sello’s personal secretary, Refiloe Mokone, was on Monday arrested by the South African Police Service’s elite crime fighting unit, the Hawks, for allegedly smuggling diamonds into South Africa.

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.

Only one of the suspects was released but Ms Mokone and the others remain in custody. They will appear again in court on 19 December this year.

Attempts to obtain comment from the Hawks proved fruitless as their phones went unanswered yesterday.

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.

“While at this point, we have no idea where the diamonds may have come from, it would be a highly abnormal occurrence for the Lesotho diamonds to be exported in that manner,” Mr Mahlo said.

The official statement released by the Ministry of Mining on Friday states that “the Ministry has discovered that one of its employees working as a private secretary to the Minister of Mining was arrested along with three men by the South African police in Ladybrand on Monday 3 December, 2018 for illegal possession of diamonds”.

“The ministry has followed up on the matter and the Ministry has confirmed that …they have appeared before the Ladybrand Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday 4 December 2018.

“One of the men was released by the court while the official and the other two men are still in police custody awaiting to appear in the Ladybrand Magistrates’ Court on 19 December 2018.

“More information regarding the arrest of the official will become clear when the case resumes on 19 December 2018.”

Some government sources claimed that the diamonds were worth at least M500 million- an allegation that was dismissed by Mr Mahlo on the grounds that the value could not be readily ascertained in the absence of qualified diamond evaluators.

There have been serious concerns that Lesotho is not fully benefitting from its diamonds amid indications that smuggling is a major factor.

Over the years, there have been cases of diamond smuggling and back in 2014, the then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili spoke a new “diamond rush” that had hit 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 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 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.

Attempts to get in touch with the South African police were not immediately successful as the telephone numbers of Captain Sfiso Nyakene from Bloemfontein were not going through.

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