Johannesburg, Jun 8 (PTI) South African Indian-origin businessman Iqbal Meer Sharma, reportedly a close associate of the wanted Gupta family, has been denied bail after being deemed a flight risk.
Sharma, once a powerful government official in the Department of Trade and Industry, was arrested last Thursday in a massive fraud and corruption scandal linked to the controversial Indian-origin Gupta family.
The state alleges that Sharma, through his company Nuland Investment, laundered over 20-million-rand (USD 1.4 million) that the provincial Free State Department of Agriculture paid for a feasibility study that was supposed to cost just 1.5-million-rand (USD 110,548).
This was to determine whether the Estina Dairy Farm project would benefit small-scale Black farmers in partnership with Indian company Paras.
The Estina project never took off, with allegations that tens of millions more from the venture were siphoned off to the Gupta family.
The Gupta brothers - Ajay, Atul and Rajesh - are in self-exile in Dubai as the South African government tries through the UN to extradite them because there is no extradition treaty between the two countries.
They stand accused of looting billions of rands from a number of state and parastatal institutions, allegedly because of their close relationship with former president Jacob Zuma.
“We are alleging that, in order to siphon off money, (Sharma) subcontracted another company and the other sub-company was supposed to do the same services which [another well-known company] had already done,” Sindisiwe Seboka, spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority’s Investigative Directorate (ID), said earlier.
The ID told the court on Tuesday that Sharma was a flight risk and had failed to disclose that he had transferred almost 265 million rands to his company lssar Global based in the United Arab Emirates between August 22, 2016 and December 8, 2016.
The ID also told the court that his South African assets account for just 10 per cent of his total assets.
“I know that if there was not a good prospect of success, the Director of Public Prosecutions would not have indicted the applicant for trial. Therefore, there is a real likelihood that if the applicant is released on bail, he may attempt to evade his trial. He has the incentives to evade trial due to the lengthy period of imprisonment that must be imposed if he is convicted,” said magistrate Estelle de Lange.
De Lange said Sharma had nothing to keep him in South Africa at all, as his most valuable property was registered in the name of his company in the UAE, while the other was in the process of being sold.
“He does not have much money in his South African bank accounts. No amount of bail that the court can fix today can secure the court attendance of the applicant,” she said.
The magistrate also did not consider an offer by Sharma’s attorney to hand in his passports to be a mitigating factor to grant bail.
“False passports and travel documents are a reality in South Africa. People illegally crossing borders in South Africa without documents are also a reality.
“If the accused persons are given bail and they cannot return to court, the state will find it very difficult to bring these cases to finality, especially in cases like these, where there are going to be at least 60 accused and many witnesses, with complicated evidence,” De Lange said.
“The state has indicated that their investigations are complete, they do not have to wait for the other accused to be arrested, they can continue without them as soon as the defence is ready to proceed,” she said.
The matter was postponed to July 5 for further investigation. PTI FH MRJ MRJ