President Zuma 'asked' lawyer to keep arms inquiry in dark about cash gifts, court told

30 April 2017 - 02:05 By MZILIKAZI wa AFRIKA
Pretoria lawyer Ajay Sooklal (in the background) with Ashit Mehta and President Jacob Zuma.
Pretoria lawyer Ajay Sooklal (in the background) with Ashit Mehta and President Jacob Zuma.
Image: SUPPLIED

President Jacob Zuma allegedly tried to silence a close confidant who had "intimate knowledge" about how the president benefited from the arms deal, by asking him not to testify at the Seriti commission.

Explosive details of how Zuma allegedly tried to cover up his relationship with French company Thales, as well as how the company gave him hundreds of thousands of rands in cash and treated him to five-star hotel stays and designer clothes, are contained in new papers filed in the High Court in Pretoria.

They tell how Zuma allegedly demanded to be moved to a more expensive hotel when the company invited him to Paris in 2007 for the Rugby World Cup semifinal, and how, after his luggage was lost, it paid for a shopping spree in the French capital.

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Pretoria lawyer Ajay Sooklal filed his affidavit in support of a high court application by Corruption Watch and the Right2Know Campaign, which are challenging the findings of the Seriti commission of inquiry into the arms deal. The commission found no evidence of corruption in the arms deal.

In the affidavit, Sooklal claims the president invited him to his official residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu, in Pretoria on August 13 2012 and asked him not to spill the beans to the Seriti commission, which began public hearings a year later.

Sooklal says Zuma told him: "My brother, I have appointed an arms deal commission to finally put to rest allegations of impropriety, bribery or corruption in the Defence Review Project. I request you not to inform the commission that the French were paying me monies over the years up to 2009."

Zuma's spokesman, Bongani Ngqulunga, did not answer questions sent to the president this week, saying "the matter is already before the court".

Thales was awarded a R2.6-billion contract in 1997 to fit four new navy frigates with combat suites, as part of South Africa's R60-billion arms procurement package. Sooklal was hired by Thales as a consultant in 2003 after the company was implicated by South African authorities in bribing officials.

Zuma announced the commission in 2011 and appointed Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Willie Seriti to chair it.

Sooklal claims that he approached the commission in 2015, saying he had pertinent information and was willing to testify, but that the commission never responded.

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He says he was motivated to support the court application in "response to a call made by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng" who, when addressing a legal conference in Cape Town last year, "emphasised the importance of the role which lawyers can play in weeding out corruption in South Africa".

Sooklal says he asked to join the Corruption Watch and Right2Know application because he believes "the entire process in relation to the Arms Procurement Commission was tainted from the beginning".

His affidavit "discloses a serious conflict of interest" on the part of Zuma, "destroying the credibility of the commission and its findings".

The court case is set to resume later this year, when a decision on Sooklal's application is expected to be made.

Sooklal claims Zuma was not the right person to appoint the Seriti commission, as he was conflicted in the matter.

He names Pierre Moynot, the former executive director of Thales's South African subsidiary Thint, as the president's benefactor.

Moynot told the Sunday Times this week that he couldn't remember anything.

"I suffer from Alzheimer's and have a doctor's letter to prove it. I lost my memory after a bad accident in 2010 and now I can't remember anything," he said.

But in an interview in 2014 with the Sunday Times, Moynot accused Sooklal of being a liar who "would do anything for money".

He confirmed, however, that Thales bought Zuma clothes and paid for his trips and legal fees.

Sooklal says in his affidavit that he was present when Moynot paid for five-star hotel accommodation for Zuma in Paris and Brussels and even handed the president €25,000 in cash.

He claims that when Zuma's luggage failed to arrive in Paris in 2007, he accompanied him on a shopping spree paid for by Moynot.

Sooklal says in his affidavit that "Moynot gracefully paid" for Zuma's presidential suite accommodation at the Meridien Hotel in Paris, but the president wasn't happy with the hotel and "requested Moynot to book a better class of a Paris five-star hotel, being the Concorde La Fayette, which Moynot did".

Zuma was in Paris to watch South Africa play Argentina. The Bok game was a day after France played England, which Zuma also watched.

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Sooklal claims that prior to this trip, he accompanied Zuma to Brussels to meet EU officials, and that Moynot paid for Zuma's "accommodation at the Sheraton Hotel Brussels and all his hotel expenses including VIP chauffeur car service. In addition, he [Moynot] handed over €25,000 to [Zuma] in cash".

Sooklal claims Thales expected Zuma — who was deputy president from 1999 until 2005, when he was fired for his involvement with Schabir Shaik and the arms deal — to promote the French company's future business ventures in South Africa in return for the alleged bribes.

He says Thales in France instructed Thint to give Zuma whatever he wanted, as he was expected to become the next president of South Africa.

At the time that he was enjoying Thales's generosity, Zuma was under increasing pressure in South Africa, facing a corruption probe by the Scorpions — the elite investigating unit operating at the time.

Corruption charges were controversially dropped in 2009, shortly before Zuma became president.

Sooklal also reiterates claims that Thales donated €1-million to the ANC.

ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa told the Sunday Times this week that the party had no record of such a donation.

"It's an old rehearsed story. There is no truth to it," he said.

In his court papers, Sooklal includes an e-mail that his lawyer, Dev Maharaj, sent to the Seriti commission in 2015, saying his client had information on "behind-the-scenes" deals in the arms deal and was willing to testify. He says he was never contacted by the commission.

Maharaj told the Sunday Times on Friday that he had not even received acknowledgement of his e-mail from the Seriti commission.

"We even followed it with another letter but still no response," he said.

Thales failed to answer a list of questions sent to it on Thursday.

mzilikazi@sundaytimes.co.za