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Witnesses shun arms deal inquiry

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Three key witnesses do not want to give evidence about the 1999 arms deal, the Seriti Commission of Inquiry heard on Monday.

Geoff Budlender, SC, said his clients — former ANC MP and author Andrew Feinstein and researchers Hennie van Vuuren and Paul Holden, who had all been subpoenaed as witnesses — would not testify.

“Mr Holden has not received a subpoena. He is in London, where he lives. Mr Feinstein has received a subpoena in London, where he lives,” said Budlender.

“My attorneys ask the commission whether it contends that the subpoena obliges Mr Feinstein to travel to South Africa to give evidence. If so, on what basis does the commission have extra-territorial powers?”

He said Feinstein had been advised that the commission had no jurisdiction over people outside the borders of South Africa.

“I have also been instructed to inform the commission that in any event, Mr Holden and Mr Feinstein associate themselves fully with what Mr Van Vuuren has said and the position he has taken,” said Budlender.

“I have been instructed to respectfully inform the commission that Mr Feinstein and Mr Holden will not be travelling to South Africa and appearing at the commission, as indicated on this week’s programme.”

Van Vuuren refused to testify at the inquiry on Monday, accusing the commission of straying from its mandate.

“We have been refused access to evidence. The commission has refused to make huge amounts of evidence public. We have attempted to resolve this issue during the 18 months that we participated in the commission’s work,” Van Vuuren wrote in a statement to the commission.

The evidence included millions of pages from official investigations of corruption by government agencies into the arms deal.

“This material was collected at great expense and cost to the State and the South African people. Our repeated requests to access this information, which we were promised, have been ignored,” he said.

Van Vuuren said the inquiry had refused an opportunity to provide critical documentary evidence alleging corruption. He said Seriti had declared some documents pointing to graft as inadmissible as evidence.

“The commission has lost the public’s trust. There is evidence to suggest that the commission is following a second agenda, namely to discredit critical witnesses and find in favour of the State and arms corporations’ version of events,” he said.

“I am mindful of the fact that the arms deal has brought havoc [to] the lives of ordinary South Africans and corrupted our politics for the past 15 years. It has profited the rich at the expense of the poor.”

He said the “cover-up” that followed the 1999 arms deal had put in place a system of patronage for “keeping alleged corrupt elites out of prison”.

“I have regretfully come to the conclusion that this commission will provide no remedy to the situation. I can no longer, in good conscience, participate in the hearings of the arms procurement commission,” said Van Vuuren.

“To do so would be to aid what I see as a deeply unfair and flawed process.

“I am of the view that the arms procurement commission has strayed from its mandate and become a fundamental obstacle to the public’s right to know and to justice.”

Van Vuuren called for the commission to be disbanded and replaced with a “full and transparent criminal investigation which leads to prosecution of all implicated in arms deal wrongdoing”.

Inquiry chairman, Judge Willie Seriti, told Budlender the three faced legal action if they did not testify.

“My initial gut feeling is that we are going to try and serve them (Holden and Feinstein) the subpoenas again so that we can give them the same treatment that we are going to give Mr Van Vuuren,” said Seriti.

Due to the withdrawal by scheduled witnesses, the public hearings would resume in November.

The commission was appointed by President Jacob Zuma three years ago to investigate alleged corruption in the country’s multi-billion rand arms procurement deal in 1999.

The government acquired, among other hardware, 26 Gripen fighter aircraft and 24 Hawk lead-in fighter trainer aircraft for the air force, and frigates and submarines for the navy. SAPA

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