Written by: Allison Thomson
In late September 2014, 10 suspects of a rhino poaching syndicate were arrested in a well-coordinated operation in several provinces after a year-long investigation. The accused included a pilot, a lawyer, a police officer from Organized Crime and other South Africans who are possible participants of a poaching ring which is responsible for the killing of two dozen rhinos over several years.
The 10 face 318 charges including racketeering, theft, fraud, malicious damage to property, money laundering, intimidation, and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
The syndicate, which operated in five of South Africa’s nine provinces, are accused of being involved in the slaughter and mutilation of 24 rhinos in state-owned and privately owned game reserves between 2008 and 2012. The syndicate is also accused of stealing rhino horns or acquiring them by other “devious means,” illegally obtaining a total of 84 horns.
The first bail application was lodged in the Pretoria High Court by accused Willem van Jaarsveld, the lawyer that was charged in this case. This was denied and then taken on appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein where he was granted bail. Then followed a stream of applications by the other syndicate members which were also denied. However, over the Christmas period when Prosecutor Joanie Spies and Investigating Officer Johan Jooste were on leave, bail applications were submitted and 7 more members of the syndicate were granted bail by a magistrate who was quoted as saying that the charges “were not too serious”. She obviously did not understand the gravity of the 318 charges that were in question and the stand-in prosecutor was ill-equipped to argue the state’s case adequately.
Hugo Ras’s bail application was the last to be heard on Friday 27th February 2015 and in his judgment the magistrate reiterated the gravity of the offences committed and referred to Ras’s lengthy history of illegal activity and the plight of the rhinos in South Africa. Ras was denied bail and the case will resume on the 1st April 2015 when all 10 suspects will appear. Only 2 of the 10 members, namely Hugo Ras and his brother in law Arno Smit remain in jail pending the start of the trial.