Charges against three people accused of corruption for allegedly “selling places” at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Medical School, have been provisionally withdrawn. News24 reports that the withdrawal came after lawyers for Little Gujarat restaurant owners, Varsha and Hiteshkumar Bhatt, and former teacher Preshni Hiramun, argued that the State was far from ready for the trial.
The State alleges the three accused sold places at the medical school for as much as R500,000 each.
The report says Pinetown Magistrate Correl Language pointed out that he warned the State at a previous appearance in March that it would be the final postponement. “I am not prepared to deviate from my position. It seems the State can’t and does not have the capacity to complete its investigation within a reasonable time frame. It’s better if the charges are withdrawn and once the State gets its house in order, it can decide who to charge with what,” he said.
Warrant Officer Sunette Potgieter, of the Hawks’ Digital Forensic Unit, testified that she had received seven computers and 39 “mobile exhibits” – cellphones, tablets and SD cards – in the middle of last year.
“We had to obtain search warrants to go through them and these were only secured in January this year. So, we only started our analysis in February. All of the mobile units have been imaged, processed, analysed and reports have been compiled. But we are still analysing the computers and there is much more data on them.
“It takes a month and a half to do one….so it will take at least six to nine and a half months to complete.”
She said she spent an hour and a half every day on this because it was her priority case. If she had been told in March that the case was marked for a final postponement, she would have said it was “impossible”, she added.
According to the report, State advocate Attie Truter told the court the delay in obtaining the search warrants was because the State was waiting for cybercrime legislation to be gazetted. “We cannot prosecute piecemeal. If the charges are withdrawn, we will have to return the devices….and then we will not be able to prosecute. The prejudice is significant.”
But advocate Rajiv Sarjoo, who represents the Bhatts, submitted that the matter had been on the roll for almost two years. “They own a restaurant, it’s been all over the media. It’s had a negative impact on their business and now they are trying to sell because it’s not profitable.”
Attorney Jacques Botha, who represents Hiramun, added: “This is not a permanent stay of prosecution. It’s a question of whether or not my client must live her life in abeyance. Quite simply, Potgieter is facing a colossal task and she is never going to be finished in a year.”
Hiteshkumar Bhatt and his wife, Varsha, claim they were made the “fall guys” by others with strong connections to the institute, says a Sunday Tribune report. Following the provisional withdrawal of charges against the Bhatts, an attorney said the matter had “affected them emotionally and financially”.
And Botha said the past 18 months had been a very difficult time for Hiraman. “She was judged and bullied on social media. My client and her husband were treated for depression, they were forced to close their business and some family won’t speak to them.”
Botha said although the immediate prejudice from standing trial had been diminished, it was cold comfort for Hiraman. “The matter hasn’t gone away; it is only struck off the roll. The prosecution team must finish their investigation, and they could apply to have the case reinstated.”
But, the report says, Botha doubts whether the period requested by Truter will be enough to investigate the data collected. “The State said it had 56m hits to investigate and correlate. The warrant officer (Sunette Potgieter), who testified in court on Thursday, said she had only worked on the matter for two hours each day. If she worked on a few hundred hits a day, it could take around 10 years before she’s done. If that happened, then the question is, will the accused and witnesses be expected to remember details? The prolonged wait will also be prejudicial to the state.”