The same laws that apply to the poor must apply to wealthy Gupta associate Iqbal Sharma, high court hears

Gupta family associate Iqbal Sharma will know next week whether he will be granted bail.
Gupta family associate Iqbal Sharma will know next week whether he will be granted bail.
Image: THAPELO MOREBUDI

Gupta associate and multimillionaire businessman Iqbal Sharma will know next week on Wednesday whether he will be granted bail.

The Bloemfontein high court on Friday reserved judgment following his bail appeal, which was held virtually. He has spent more than a month behind bars after the Bloemfontein magistrate's court denied him bail last month, saying he was a flight risk.

Sharma was arrested in connection with the failed R288m Estina dairy project.

He was charged alongside Dr Limakatso Moorosi from the department of agriculture, Seipati Dhlamini, who was the department’s financial officer, and former Free State agriculture department head Peter Thabethe. His co-accused were all released on bail of R10 000 each.

While the state had stuck to its guns on wanting Sharma to remain incarcerated, in the last minutes of proceedings on Friday prosecutor Peter Serunye seemed to suggest there was some room for a feasible agreement on Sharma’s release, but also called on the court to ensure it did not appear as though there were unjust exceptions being made for the wealthy.

After delivering his arguments, judge Joseph Mhlambi asked Serunye: “Say an accused who wants to be let out on bail says, ‘I’m not going away. You can tie me to that bed until such time this matter is finalised.’ Would it take care of the problems you have?

“In this instance, the suggestions made by Mr [Mannie] Witz [for Sharma] is that there are these electronic gadgets, house arrest and so on. Would it sort out the problem you have?”

The problems presented by Serunye which had led to the state vigorously opposing bail included that Sharma was a wealthy businessman who was well-travelled and possibly had connections in many countries he frequented for business and pleasure.

Serunye said the state was worried that should he be released on bail and flee the country, it would be difficult to locate and extradite him back to SA.

Witz suggested several remedies, including electronic tagging, house arrest and having him report to a police station daily.

If one is talking in the interest of justice, would an ordinary person in the street see this as justice being served?
Prosecutor Peter Serunye

Serunye conceded that bail with stringent conditions was not completely off the cards. He said the problem was that if one looks at this particular case and others before the court, these are state capture cases “which are very serious in their own right, where we are talking taxpayers’ monies and government money being misappropriated.

“What impression does that create? If one is talking in the interest of justice, would an ordinary person in the street see this as justice being served or would it be a situation where one thinks that if they had the means, they could offer their luxurious house or offer to be given electronic equipment on their leg?

“Can we afford to do that to any other accused who comes before the court who says, 'I am facing charges, I am willing to come to court, I won’t abscond, put the electronic equipment on my leg'?”

He also referred to a comment made by the magistrate who previously denied Sharma bail, who referred to a perceived law for the rich.

He said these remedies were some the court could consider.  

“My Lord, can I ask that if the court were to consider an alternative, can the appellant be compelled to disclose his assets, so we know what he has especially outside the borders of this country and especially in the UAE from monies in the bank to immovable property. Then we can apply our minds to the issue raised on the alternative,” he said.

Mhlambi said this was a fair request, highlighting that Sharma had told the court that to secure bail, he was willing to accept even the most stringent bail conditions.

Witz said he would need to get instructions from Sharma, who is in a Bloemfontein prison. He stressed this would be difficult as prison visits were barred during level 4 lockdown restrictions.

“I will put in a request through my attorney and maybe through his family or wife. If they can get something positive and there is an asset that can be discussed with the state, we will do so,” Witz said.

The list of assets was to be prepared and handed to the state and Mhlambi prior to judgment being delivered.

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