Hawks step in as business tycoons face kidnap scourge

Syndicates target rich people in business, extracting ransoms in tens of millions

29 April 2018 - 00:00 By GRAEME HOSKEN

More than 40 businessmen have been kidnapped in South Africa over the past three years, with sophisticated syndicates demanding ransoms of up to R50-million.
The scourge has got so bad the police and Hawks have set up a special task team, while the Institute for Security Studies has begun a research project into the worrying spike.
The Hawks say they are investigating 24 kidnappings that had occurred over the past 18 months.About three businessmen are reported kidnapped each month, but police and crime experts confirm the unofficial figure is much higher, as many families do not call the police because of threats by the kidnappers.
"If it continues at this intensity, the country could soon become a kidnapping hot spot in Africa. On average, we see three 'prominent' kidnappings a month," said kidnapping expert Martin Ewi, of the ISS's transnational organised crime programme.
In just the past two weeks several incidents have made headlines. They include:
• Polish businesswoman Barbara Wadolowska was kidnapped outside her Sandton hotel on April 10 and held for a €2-million (about R30-million) ransom. A large portion of this was paid and she was released near OR Tambo airport on April 13.• Pakistani Majeed "Manjla" Khan was assassinated on the M1 in Johannesburg in peak-hour traffic on April 18. The shooting is believed to be related to the turf war between two kidnapping syndicates. A crime intelligence source claims Khan headed the financing section of one syndicate.
• Police arrested seven people in raids on three properties in the south of Johannesburg on April 18. At one house, an Eldorado Park man, who had been kidnapped on April 16 and held for ransom, was rescued. Police sources said he had been held in a room with a door welded shut and disguised. The arrests are linked to two other kidnappings.
• Johannesburg diamond dealer Zahir Begg was forced off the N1 near the Grasmere Plaza on Friday last week. He was taken to a house in Lenasia and made to phone his sister, and a demand for what is believed to be R5-million was made. Later that day, Begg managed to shoot one kidnapper dead and escape. No arrests have been made.
Those targeted are usually foreigners working in a business that deals with large sums of cash. Victims often include IT and communication entrepreneurs and barber-shop, general dealer and car sales tycoons.
The son of a Gauteng-based Indian businessman kidnapped last year told the Sunday Times the family's communication with the kidnappers had been terrifying.
"You get an anonymous voice note, you hear his voice, you see a photo of a gun to his head," said the man, whose father had asked that they not be named. "Not knowing if your father is dead or alive is terrifying."He said the family had not gone to the police because "it would have signed my father's death warrant".
He would not confirm if a ransom had been paid, but said: "You do what you need to do to get him released."
Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Neethling of the Gauteng Hawks, who sits on the SAPS national kidnapping task team, said that in the past 18 months they had investigated the kidnapping of 24 businessmen, nine from Gauteng, six each from KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, two in Limpopo and one in the Eastern Cape.
All had been released except for Gauteng businessman Shiraz Gathoo, who was kidnapped on the N12 in a bogus police roadblock in March. Sources said his ransom demand was about R50-million.
Neethling said about 30 suspects had been arrested over the past 18 months.
"From late 2016 is when the kidnapping of extremely wealthy businessmen began, with increases now being seen in the kidnapping of prominent people. Those predominantly being targeted are Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian nationals."Neethling said there were several syndicates, with kidnappers usually demanding a ransom of R20-million-plus. "Those behind the kidnapping of wealthy businessmen are highly sophisticated. They operate with an 'international footprint' in terms of how they carry out the kidnapping, use international communication systems, with ransoms paid through unconventional financial systems, which allows the quick movement of money without leaving a paper trail."
He said the syndicates used videos of their victims to intimidate communities and stop them reporting kidnappings. "This leads to severe under-reporting of kidnappings."
He said the task team included detectives, intelligence officers and the Hawks. The detectives investigated individual cases, while the Hawks looked into the syndicates' broader organised crime activities.
A kidnapping and release expert - who cannot be named because of the cases he is working on - said the syndicates, run predominantly from abroad, were well-resourced with access to safe houses, untraceable communications, surveillance expertise and financiers, and could hold people indefinitely. "Their level of sophistication makes them virtually impossible to stop."..

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