The trial of alleged rhino poaching kingpin Hugo Ras and nine co-accused was on Wednesday postponed in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria until next year to await the outcome of a constitutional challenge to regulations underpinning the charges against them.
Judge Nomonde Mngquibisa-Thusi provisionally postponed the trial until February 15 next year.
Prosecutor Joanie Spies told the court the state and defence had reached an agreement that the trial would be postponed pending the outcome of a constitutional challenge by two of the accused, Joseph Wilkinson and David Steyn, which will be heard in the High Court early next year.
Some of the other accused were also contemplating joining the application. The constitutional challenge, which centres on regulations surrounding the illegal possession, sale and transportation of rhino horns, could result in the delay of numerous poaching cases.
The accused are challenging the validity of numerous presumptions contained in the conservation ordinances of various provinces which, under certain conditions, placed the burden of proof of being legally in possession of, transporting, selling, buying and receiving rhino horns on the accused.
They maintain presumptions of guilt had fallen away since the advent of the Constitution and the State would have to ensure that the applicants’ rights to a presumption of innocence, to remain silent and not to testify during the proceedings were not being abrogated.
The accused will also rely on a court ruling which lifted the moratorium on the possession and transport of rhino horns, which they believed could have an influence on the charges against them. Ras, his wife Trudie, Mandla Magagula, Willie Oosthuizen, Wilkenson, Steyn, Arno Smit, Matthys Scheepers, Anton Ras and Willie van Jaarsveld face a total of 318 charges centring around alleged rhino poaching and the alleged theft and illegal possession, transport and sale of rhino horn. They also face charges of racketeering and money laundering.
The State alleges Hugo Ras had been the head of a criminal enterprise which operated between 2008 and 2012 with its members engaging in various illegal activities aimed at making a profit from amongst others the sale of rhino horns and parts of other species.
The activities, including alleged poaching raids at various state and privately owned game reserves, were allegedly planned in the Ras couple’s homes around Pretoria North, where poaching equipment such as a darting rifle, knives and medicine were allegedly kept openly.