MASERU — Fugitive crook Reatile Mochebelele, the former Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) chief convicted of receiving bribes, is trying to duck jail in Lesotho by seeking political asylum in South Africa.
The Lesotho government wants Mochebelele extradited from South Africa to serve the 10-year prison sentence slapped on him after he was convicted for soliciting bribes when he was Lesotho’s chief representative to the LHWP between 1986 and 2002.
Mochebelele was convicted for taking bribes from Lahmeyer International, a German company that was providing consultancy services to the LHWP during the construction of Katse Dam.
He received M1.2 million in bribes between 1988 and 1999.
The High Court sentenced him in absentia last December but since then he has been fighting efforts to extradite him from South Africa.
The Sunday Express can reveal that apart from fighting his extradition, Mochebelele has also applied for asylum in South Africa.
This paper could not establish the reasons that Mochobelele gave in his application for asylum.
Asylum is normally given to people who can justify that they are fleeing persecution in their countries.
In most cases people whose lives are endangered because of their lawful political activities in their countries can get political asylum status in other countries.
Conditions for granting political asylum status however differ from country to country.
Mochebelele made his application to South Africa’s Ministry of Home Affairs last December, a few days after he was sentenced.
His initial application was rejected but he is now planning to make an appeal against the decision, people close to the matter say.
Mochebelele’s attempts to get asylum came to light when Lesotho applied for his extradition in January this year.
The Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO), which investigated the case and is working closely with the Attorney-General’s Office on the extradition case, said it was aware that he was seeking political asylum.
The DCEO’s director for public education and corruption prevention, Litelu Ramokhoro, said they only found out about Mochebelele’s asylum application when they applied for his extradition.
He said their extradition application could not be processed because his political asylum case was still pending.
It is normal practice that when a person has applied for asylum they cannot be extradited until their application is finalised.
Ramokhoro said the extradition case has now been set for September 27 and 28 at the Randburg Magistrate’s Court in South Africa.
He said the date was set after the “South African authorities turned down his application (for asylum)”.
Ramokhoro however said the DCEO was “aware that there are a number of other possible avenues that he may explore” to get asylum.
According to South Africa’s regulations for refugees, Mochebelele can still get another chance to convince the authorities that he deserves to get asylum.
He can approach the Refugee Appeal Board, an independent tribunal which offers asylum seekers who have their applications rejected a second chance to prove their claims.
The board then interviews the applicant and responds within three months.
If that happens Lesotho’s extradition efforts might be stalled again.
Mochebelele’s accomplice, Letlafuoa Molapo, also a former LHWP delegate, is already serving his three-year jail sentence after last December’s conviction.
But the long arm of the law has been very slow to catch up with Mochebelele.
At one time it appeared Lesotho’s most prominent corruption trial had been closed when, on February 5 2008, High Court judge Thamsanqa Nomncongo delivered a “not guilty” verdict against the duo.
But their “freedom” was short-lived because a few months later Mochebelele and Molapo were back in court, this time round fending off the prosecution’s appeal against their acquittal.
The result was an astounding blow to the pair’s quest for freedom.
The Court of Appeal overturned their acquittal in October 2008 and instead found the duo guilty and tasked the High Court to deliver sentence.
In July last year the High Court sentenced Mochebelele to 10 years in prison or a M1 million fine.
Molapo was slapped with a two-year prison sentence or a M200 000 fine.
They paid the fines and for once it looked like the matter had been finally closed.
But the prosecution took the fight back to the Court of Appeal arguing that the sentences were too lenient and that the two should get custodial sentences.
The prosecution argued that the fines were not severe enough because the M1.2 million the two had paid as fines was equivalent to the bribes they had been convicted of receiving between 1989 and 1999.
The fines, the state argued, meant that Mochebelele and Molapo had merely paid off what they were found to have received in bribes.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the state and descended hard on the convicts.
The court ordered that not only should Mochebelele spend time in jail but he should also forfeit to the state M800 000 of the M1 million he had paid as a fine.
Molapo’s sentence was increased from the initial two years in prison to six although he had 18 months suspended on condition that he forfeited the M200 000 fine he had paid.
A further 18 months were suspended on condition that he paid another M200 000 to the state.