JOHANNESBURG — A former government official convicted of corruption is fighting Lesotho’s efforts to extradite him from South Africa to serve a 10-year-sentence.
Reatile Mochebelele, who was the government’s chief representative at the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), was in 2009 convicted of taking millions of maloti in bribes from a German engineering company that was working on the construction of Katse and Mohale dams.
Mochebelele started his battle against extradition last Tuesday in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court in Johannesburg. During the hearing the Lesotho government argued that Mochebelele was a fugitive from justice and he should be brought back to serve his term.
Mochebelele however countered that his prosecution was politically motivated.
The 10-year sentence, Mochobelele claimed, is too harsh and motivated by political hatred.
Mochebelele fled Lesotho after the Lesotho Court of Appeal found him guilty.
The court sentenced him to a 10-year prison term and forfeited M800 000 of the R1-million he had paid as a fine imposed on him by the high court.
Mochebelele and his co-accused, Letlafuoa Molapo, who is already serving his six-year jail term at the Maseru Central Prison, were found guilty of accepting more than M1.8 million in bribes from German engineering company Lahmeyer.
Molapo was also a delegate on the commission.
Lahmeyer scooped lucrative tenders after bribing the two top men of the Lesotho delegation in the joint water commission.
The court found that, in their positions as the Lesotho delegates in the commission, the men were influential in policy direction and decisions taken by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), the executive body of the water project which is supervised by the LHWC.
Despite the Lesotho Court of Appeal’s finding, Mochebelele argues that he should not be sent to Lesotho to be jailed because his prosecution and sentencing, which he says is harsh, were based on political hatred.
He blames former natural resources minister Monyane Moleleki as the mastermind behind what he calls a “politically motivated persecution”.
He told the South African asylum board that Moleleki was bitter that he was fired as the public relations manager of the LHDA.
Mochebelele said immediately after Moleleki became minister he told him that he could not work with him because he was not attending Basutoland Congress Party meetings in the run-up to the 1993 elections.
Moleleki was then an executive committee member of the party, which won all constituencies and formed the first democratic government after 22 years on the run.
He said all hell broke loose when he — as the commission’s boss — ordered an audit of the water project’s management.
Moleleki ordered him to stop the audit, but he persisted.
The audit led to the dismissal and eventual prosecution of the water project’s chief executive, Masupha Sole, whom Mochebelele claimed was good friends with Moleleki.
Sole was found guilty on 13 counts of bribery and sentenced to 15 years in jail, but was paroled in May last year after serving nine years.
Moleleki controversially appointed Sole as chief technical adviser to the commission within three months of his release from prison amid objections from the South African government, which is the partner in the water scheme.
When Sole was prosecuted in 2002, Mochebelele was one of the state witnesses.
Mochebelele’s asylum application failed and the Lesotho government pursued the extradition case against him in court last week.
Asylum is normally given to people who can justify their claim to be fleeing persecution in their countries.
Mochebelele failed to prove that his life was endangered because of his lawful political activities in Lesotho.
He made his application to South Africa’s home affairs ministry in December 2009, a few days after he was sentenced.
His initial application was rejected and he approached the Refugee Appeal Board, an independent tribunal that offers asylum seekers who have their applications rejected a second chance to prove their claims.
In its ruling, the appeal board said it found it improbable that Moleleki had set in motion the process to persecute Mochebelele.
It pointed out that, although Moleleki had become a minister in 1993, the investigation of Mochebelele’s case had started only a decade later in 2003.
Even then, the board reasoned, the information that triggered the investigation had not come from Moleleki, but from a Lahmeyer official who was based in Lesotho.
“The board is of the opinion that if minister Moleleki wanted to prosecute the appellant (Mochebelele) maliciously because of their imputed political different opinions, he could have and probably would have done so long before the corruption and bribery charges were brought against the appellant and his co-accused (Molapo),” the board said.
“The evidence does not show that, apart from differences between them, minister Moleleki or any government official ever threatened the appellant with threats (that) may have shown malice,” the board said.
Mochebelele’s attempts to gain asylum came to light when Lesotho applied for his extradition in January 2010.
The extradition application could not be processed because his political asylum case was still pending.
The extradition case against Mochebelele is being argued at a time when Lesotho and South Africa are at loggerheads over Lesotho’s appointment of Sole to advise the same commission.
South Africa is objecting to the appointment of Sole to a position in which he will take part in overseeing the construction of Polihali Dam, another project aimed at quenching Gauteng’s thirst.
South Africa has invested R9-billion in the project.
The Randburg Magistrate’s Court is yet to make a ruling on Mochebelele’s extradition. — Mail & Guardian