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Lesotho accused of hiding Gupta Fugitive

…govt rubbishes the claims

…says claims meant to tarnish cordial Lesotho-SA relations

Keiso Mohloboli

THE South African government’s search for one of the fugitive members of the notorious Gupta family, wanted over a multi-million rand corruption scam, has led them to Lesotho with the South African Police Service (SAPS) saying they received tip-offs that Ajay Gupta had fled to Maseru on Friday.

However, the Lesotho government immediately dismissed the allegations saying they were the work of people bent on tarnishing the image of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and sowing discord between the two countries which enjoy cordial relations.

Ajay Gupta went on the run shortly before SAPS officers raided his family compound in Saxonwold‚ Johannesburg, on Wednesday in connection with the alleged theft of R220 million from the Estina Dairy Farm project in the Free State province. The money was meant to benefit poor black farmers by buying them dairy cows.  But they got nothing with the money disappearing into the pockets of the Guptas who used it to, among other things, fund a lavish wedding for their relative at the Sun City resort.  SA police had arrested several other Gupta family acolytes during their raid of the family’s Saxonwold compound but Ajay Gupta was not found.  He has since been declared a fugitive from justice by the SA police.  Free State agricultural department officials, Peter Thabethe and Takisi Janki Masiteng‚ and national Mineral Resources Department chief of staff, Sylvia Dlamini, have also been arrested over the corruption scam. The arrested Gupta family acolytes and the officials have since appeared in court and been granted bail amounts ranging from M10 000 to M200 000.

SAPS Spokesperson for the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, said they had received a tip-off that Ajay Gupta fled to Lesotho on Friday where he was given refuge by the Lesotho government.

Brigadier Mulaudzi yesterday told the Sunday Express that they were “currently working on the tip-off leading to Lesotho for Ajay’s manhunt”.

“Without getting into too much details because the manhunt is on-going, we have been reliably informed that he was booked to stay at one of the hotels in Maseru, Mpilo Boutique Hotel.”

There were rampant allegations yesterday that Mpilo Boutique Hotel owner, Sam Matekane, had facilitated the movement of Ajay Gupta out of Lesotho using his private jet. However, efforts to obtain a comment from Mr Matekane were fruitless at the time of going to print as his mobile phone rang unanswered and he did not respond to text messages.

However, the government secretary, Moahloli Mphaka, yesterday rubbished claims that Lesotho had assisted Ajay Gupta in an interview with this publication.

“The allegations that one of the Gupta brothers, Ajay, is in Lesotho are unfounded and baseless, let alone the issue that he was escorted by Prime Minister’s official escort from Maseru Border gate.”

He said the allegations were solely meant to tarnish the image of the government and that of Dr Thabane as well as foment discord with the South African government.

“The current coalition government of the All Basotho Convention, Alliance of Democrats, Basotho National Party and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho believes in democracy, the rule of law and sound diplomatic relations with South Africa and other nations.

“The premier would, therefore, not do anything to compromise good relations between Lesotho and SA by hiding someone who has been declared by the SA police to be a fugitive from justice.”

He went on to explain that Dr Thabane never assisted nor was he associated with an exit plan for any of the Gupta family members from South Africa.

He said Dr Thabane was in fact in Bloemfontein for his routine monthly medical check-up and it could therefore not be true that he had hosted Ajay Gupta at State House as was being alleged.

Mr Mphaka had earlier issued a written statement stating that Lesotho was not hosting the fugitive Gupta as alleged in some South African media reports.

“The government is worried and disturbed by baseless allegations circulating in foreign and local media that one of the Gupta brothers, who is said to have escaped South Africa has fled to Lesotho,” the statement read.

“The baseless allegations claim that this Gupta brother arrived in Maseru yesterday (Friday) through Maseru Bridge escorted by official government vehicles allocated to Dr Motsoahae Thabane. The government strongly refutes these allegations because they are only meant to confuse the nation and tarnish the government’s image and try to ruin the cordial relationship between Lesotho and South Africa.

“The current government of Lesotho believes in good diplomatic relations and if anyone is suspected of any criminal offence, it is the responsibility of the two countries to work together and bring such to book.

“The government of Lesotho won’t allow any cross border crime and will never tolerate criminals escaping from South Africa to hide in Lesotho. The government is thus informing all Lesotho nationals that the government does not know anything about the escape of any Gupta brother. The Prime Minister  Dr Thabane doesn’t know anything about that escape,” the statement said.

The Prime Minister’s  Press Attaché, Thabo Thakalekoala, concurred with Mr Mphaka, saying that the government was seriously worried by the “unfounded reports” which were meant to damage the good relations Lesotho enjoyed with its only neighbour.

“The government of Lesotho advocates for the rule of law in any country and wants to see everyone accused of any criminal acts in any regional country, including South Africa, being lawfully tried in the courts of law and the Gupta family is no different from any suspect,” Mr Thakalekoala said.

He added: “Lesotho will therefore not harbour any suspect wanted in South Africa and the government of Lesotho doesn’t know the whereabouts of this Gupta family member wanted by the South African authorities.”

Mr Thakalekoala also rubbished reports that the government sent the Prime Minister’s official motorcade to pick Mr Gupta from the border.

The Gupta family is a wealthy Indian-born South African family whose most notable members are the brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh. The family owns multi-billion rand businesses spanning computer equipment, media and mining.

They came under intense scrutiny because of their close ties to former South African president, Jacob Zuma, who was forced to step down on Wednesday. It has been alleged that the family had captured the South African President, influencing the appointment of ministers. The Guptas also used their proximity to Mr Zuma to ensure the appointments of their proxies to boards of directors of key state owned parastatals. They now stand accused of having stolen billions from state institutions in South Africa.

Last week’s police swoop on their Saxonwold compound coincided with the news that Mr Zuma had been recalled from the state presidency by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

In August 2014, Dr Thabane appointed Atul Gupta and his nephew, Essa Omar Aziz, as economic investment envoys with the aim of attracting investment from the Middle East to Lesotho.

Dr Thabane subsequently gave them diplomatic passports which were revoked by his successor, former premier Pakalitha Mosisili in 2015.

But in June 2016, Dr Mosisili told a South African publication believed to be owned by the Guptas that he believed that the Guptas had been given a raw deal by the South African public and the banks.

“We have watched with a lot of interest the happenings in South Africa and without wanting to appear to be interfering, I think the Guptas were not handled well, particularly by the banks.

“People of such potential who might invest must be treated better. I am not aware that there has been any evidence that has been brought forward that their money is not clean,” Dr Mosisili said at the time.

He also said that the Gupta family was welcome to invest in Lesotho and that the revocation of Atul Gupta’s diplomatic passport was nothing personal.

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