A pending constitutional challenge around the illegal possession, sale and transportation of rhino horns in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria may end up stonewalling poaching cases in the system, and affect prosecutions going forward. But that will only happen if the application is successful.
“This new case, filed last week, will probably delay rhino poaching syndicate trials indefinitely or at least until such time as the issues raised are answered in the high court and, possibly, the Constitutional Court,” said Allison Thomson of Outraged SA Citizens Against Poaching yesterday.
Joseph Wilkinson and David Steyn, two of the 10 accused of more than 300 combined charges around the alleged illegal possession and movement of rhino horns with alleged kingpin Hugo Ras, have cried foul over more than 100 of the charges against them.
The trial of all 10 of the accused was set down from July 27 to December 15. But it will now be suspended until the Constitutional Court has decided on the matter.
They have cited the national director of public prosecutions, the minister of justice and constitutional development, the premiers of Gauteng, North West, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, and the environmental affairs MECs for those provinces in their attempt to block their prosecution.
Court papers were served on June 28. The respondents were given 10 days to decide if they wished to oppose the application, and then another 15 to file opposing affidavits.
But with a full caseload, it is unlikely the Constitutional Court will decide soon and proceedings are likely to stall for months, which could lead to Ras being released on bail, given that he is the only one who had remained in custody since the arrests in 2014.
Under attack were numerous presumptions contained in conservation ordinances of the aforementioned provinces which – under certain conditions – placed the burden of proof of being legally in possession of, transporting, selling, buying and receipt of rhino horns on the accused, according to the applicants.
Since the advent of the constitution, presumptions of guilt had fallen away 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 have said.
Ras and his co-accused allegedly contributed to the “brutal slaughter and mutilation of 24 rhinos in state- and privately owned game reserves”.
“These delays will most likely see kingpins being given bail pending the outcome of these two cases,” said Thomson. “An enormous amount of work goes into getting these syndicates to court. One can hardly imagine the level of disappointment and frustration all involved in taking down these syndicates must feel.”