Bankless and crippled by Magnitsky sanctions, the Guptas are no ordinary criminals. Having publicly refused to travel to South Africa since 2018, brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta have long been labeled fugitives by the courts.
Two of them, now under Interpol red notices, officially carry this label because of their alleged involvement in a case of fraud and money laundering in the Free State.
Yet from the global shadow of Perpville, the Guptas continue to litigate in courts nationwide, hiding behind powers of attorney and concealing their whereabouts as they file affidavits via Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
Dubai and Tashkent are often cited as their new base, but public sightings have been so sparse or non-existent that the Guptas may well be in the Saxonwold.
By its very nature, South Africa’s quest to catch them is highly publicized, as the alleged crimes, the money trail and their hideouts span foreign jurisdictions including Hong Kong, New York, the United Arab Emirates, India and Uzbekistan.
They are involved in hundreds of millions of rands in dirty deals at Eskom and Transnet, among others, while giants like McKinsey & Co, KPMG and others are each trying to claw their way out of the mess left by what was once a lucrative association for each of them.
Unfortunately, the Guptas’ successful game of cat and mouse shows South Africa in spectacular fashion. And nothing says chaos like this:
“We know where the fugitives are.” – The Falcons, May 2022.
“It is essential that the location of the fugitives be determined before any particular country is approached with a request for the surrender of the wanted persons.” – The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), May 2022.
This was the NPA’s response to a question about whether an extradition request had already been sent.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) stated its position as fact, in its response to questions – not once, but six times.
The written response attributed to Hawks leader Lt. Gen. Godfrey Lebeya also noted that because their whereabouts are “known”, requests for mutual legal assistance and extradition have been submitted to the Department of Justice. .
When DM168 pressed the SAPS for the dates of these remarkable developments, things became, presumably, operational and therefore could not be answered. As such, it is unclear whether this information about the whereabouts of the Guptas or the actions taken is weeks, months, or even years old.
Either way, this stark difference in responses between these two entities spearheading efforts to get the Guptas to book is deeply disturbing and fuels alarming concerns about whether the Guptas will ever face the music.
Whose job is it anyway?
Locating the Guptas is a mission of national importance, but the current system seems messy and random, even reactionary.
Responses to questions sent to the Department of Justice, NPA, Offices of Ministers of Police, International Relations and State Security suggest or confirm that:
There is no cohesive plan or central command for the task and everyone thinks it is the responsibility of law enforcement despite its limited scope.
There is no indication that the various government departments are acting as a collective or working on a definitive plan or even actively lobbying their counterparts and contacts overseas.
Perhaps most concerning is that there are no plans to launch simultaneous extradition requests to all three countries – India, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan (locations identified on the basis that there are reasonable grounds to believe that is where they might be).
Frankly speaking, South Africa does not know if it is going or coming to hunt Guptas.
But although the NPA is legitimately responsible for carrying out international requests – extradition requests or requests for mutual legal assistance – it seems that everyone is just a spectator, only occasionally intervening when he is asked for some kind of favour.
The overwhelming response from the Ministries of International Relations, State Security and Police when asked about what they are doing or their role in helping South Africa locate the Guptas, is essentially that it is not is not their baby – all questions referring to the DOJ and NPA.
Given the limitations of local law enforcement and the dynamics of the national interest in this case, DM168 asked the State Security Agency (SSA) what it had done to help find the Guptas. Here is their response: “Please refer the inquiry to law enforcement regarding investigation, possible extradition and prosecution in this regard. the [SSA] does not have a law enforcement mandate.
When asked if the SSA – considering it has both a domestic and a foreign branch – had ever been asked to help find the Guptas, the answer was standard, the SSA spokeswoman, Mava Scott, simply saying that “the law does not permit” operational matters to be discussed with third parties.
With the SSA now located in the presidency under Minister Mondli Gungubele, DM168 went further to ask what the new minister did to familiarize himself with the SSA’s efforts to find the Guptas.
His office also referred questions to law enforcement and the NPA.
DM168 — noting the costs associated with Gupta’s alleged crimes, the ongoing costs of the investigation, as well as the limited reach of law enforcement — asked the minister’s office to reconsider its response.
We also asked if the SSA sees itself as a mere spectator in this mission.
Despite several email reminders, the minister’s office remained silent.
In the dark
South Africa therefore does not know whether the domestic or foreign branch of the SSA, with its large number of agents or assets around the world, has lifted a finger to help local law enforcement.
Similarly, information requested from Minister Naledi Pandor’s office went unanswered – except for a question about the South African embassy responsible for Uzbekistan. (Younger generation Guptas openly do business in the capital, Tashkent.)
DM168 asked the Department of International Relations and Cooperation a series of eight questions, including when an official South African delegation last visited Uzbekistan, which South African embassy is responsible for that country and whether mission chief has been tasked with establishing whether the Guptas are indeed in Uzbekistan, as suggested by the media.
Again, we were told that the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the Gupta cases.
South African diplomats could productively wave Interpol red notices or arrest warrants to the governments of the United Arab Emirates, India or Uzbekistan in an attempt to obtain official information on the last seen that the Guptas have entered or left their borders.
Instead, a mission of national interest continues to be the apparent domain of law enforcement, important as the limits of its scope may be in this case.
The Justice Department did not respond to questions, while the NPA, which asked who exactly is in charge of tracking down the Guptas, said, “It is the function of the police to locate accused persons and s make sure they appear in court. ”
The NPA will initiate extradition when the fugitive is in a foreign state. But he can’t move until the suspects are located, and for that his own success depends on Interpol’s delivery.
He also confirmed that the Investigations Directorate, the driving force behind many Gupta-related cases, asked state security to help track them down, but provided no details.
In addition, the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, who is also the rotating Chair of the Anti-Corruption Task Force, has scheduled meetings with the Directors General of State Security and International Relations in the coming weeks.
The NPA also maintains that it cannot initiate extradition proceedings until the Guptas are located. (There was a lot of criticism of this decision.)
DM168 asked one of Gupta’s lawyers, Stiaan Krause, if he had received requests for details of the whereabouts of the Gupta brothers and, if so, whether he would be prevented from disclosing them.
We also asked what it would take for his clients to travel to South Africa to respond to allegations of fraud, corruption or money laundering.
Would such a trip be conditional? What would those conditions be?
Unsurprisingly, there was no response. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly newspaper Daily Maverick 168, which is available nationwide for R25.