Arms Deal Commission: Obstacles to the truth must be cleared

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The Seriti Commission, which resumed public hearings this week following an adjournment to have certain documents relating to the Strategic Defence Procurement Package (SDPP) declassified, has come under fire from three people closely associated with exposing its dirty side.

Andrew Feinstein, Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren said in a statement released by Lawyers for Human Rights that they were “extremely concerned” by ongoing obstacles to full participation in the enquiry. This is because of the Commission’s failure to give adequate notice to the public of witness lists and the testimony of government officials, among others.

The situation regarding the testimony of government officials, including senior SA National Defence Force (SANDF) officers and Armscor personnel, has been changed somewhat.

Advocate Richard Solomon SC, Armscor’s legal representative is reported by Business Day has having told the Commission “all processes required to declassify sensitive documents on the weaponry systems of the various military equipment, including submarines, frigates and fighter jets, were concluded in the week and a half the public hearings were adjourned by chairman Judge Willie Seriti”.

Feinstein, Holden and Van Vuuren maintain all investigations into the SDPP to date have been undermined by “a lack of political will and documented interference by powerful individuals within and close to government”.

The trio call the Arms Deal the most significant political and economic scandal of the post-apartheid era.
“Not only has it dominated news cycles and formed the subject of numerous books, it has been directly responsible for the emasculation of Parliament, the inappropriate politicisation of the prosecuting authority and the outright destruction of the Directorate of Special Operations (The Scorpions),” they said.

While not going as far as calling for the Commission’s closure, the trio want Judge Seriti to continue because it “presents a unique opportunity for the full story of the Arms Deal to be made public and for wrongdoers to be held accountable for their actions. However, we believe that unless significant changes are made to the manner in which the Seriti Commission operates especially in regard to on-going public hearings, this unique opportunity will be squandered, despite considerable expense to the taxpayer. The Commission has an obligation to clear obstacles which prevent full truth telling and limit the public’s right to know”.

In support of their request the three note they were all subpoenaed to give evidence before the Commission.
“The subpoenas we received give us the legal right to view any document the Commission holds that is relevant to the issues on which we will be giving evidence. Paragraph C(4) of the Annexure to our Summons states: ‘Take notice that you may inspect any documents that the Commission has which may be relevant to your testimony.’
“However, despite repeated requests, the Commission has not made a single document available for us to view.”

They have called on the Commission to immediately issue an updated list of all witnesses and approximate dates of their testimony; make available to all interested parties and on the Commission’s website full witness statements and the documents on which each witness will rely during testimony; give adequate notice of any changes to statements or additional documents included in witness statements; and make arrangements for viewing of documentation in the commission’s possession which “we are legally entitled to”.

These developments come at a time when the current mandate of the commission has just over seven weeks to run. It was given two years to complete its work and the current witness list runs through to the end of January with former president Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel, minister of finance at the time of the 1999 SDPP, given as the last two to appear.

The Commission was established by Presidential decree to investigate allegations of fraud, corruption, impropriety or irregularity into the SDPP.

It saw the SA Air Force and SA Navy obtain new front-line equipment comprising 26 Gripen fighters, 24 Hawk Mk 120 Lead-In Fighter-Trainers, 30 A109 Light Utility Helicopters and four Westland Super Lynx maritime helicopters. The Navy regained its blue water capability with four Valour class frigates and three Type 209 diesel-electric submarines.