S. African minister's wife gets 12 years for drug running

6th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Sheryl Cwele, the wife of South Africa's intelligence minister, was sentenced to 12 years in prison Friday for drug trafficking after being convicted of hiring young women as mules.

Cwele's Nigerian co-accused, Frank Nabolisa, was also jailed for 12 years at the Pietermaritzburg High Court in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.

"Many families are affected by drugs which are brought here illegally. They suffer as a result of dealers who often initiate addiction by constant supply and thrive on that addiction," Judge Piet Koen was quoted as saying by the Sapa news agency as he handed down the sentence.

Cwele and Nabolisa were convicted on Thursday. Both have moved to appeal.

The pair escaped possible sentences of 15 years.

Cwele's husband, Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele, said through his spokesman he would not comment on the matter until after the appeal.

"Any comment will be premature given the fact that the matter is still subject to a court process," said spokesman Brian Dube.

Cwele's lawyers argued she had been manipulated by Nabolisa and stressed that she did not physically handle the drugs.

Allegations of Cwele's drug trafficking surfaced in 2009 after the arrest of Tessa Beetge, a South African woman caught in Brazil with 10 kilogrammes of cocaine worth almost $300,000 (202,000 euros).

Beetge's parents told a South African newspaper that Cwele, a former neighbour, had arranged their daughter's trip to Brazil after offering her a job overseas.

Beetge is currently serving a jail sentence in Sao Paulo.

Cwele, a municipal director of health and community services, had been out on 100,000 rand ($15,000, 10,200 euros) bail since her arrest a year ago.

Her lawyers said she met Nabolisa through an acquaintance and agreed to help him recruit two white people to work for his company.

The minister, who was appointed by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, had appeared in court during her bail hearing but was not present for the verdict or sentencing.

Opposition parties hailed the sentence and intensified calls for Cwele's husband to resign.

"It is incomprehensible that the state security minister can have an alleged drug trafficker in his house without him being aware of it," said African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe.

"The ACDP believes State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele has failed the state by failing to uncover drug trafficking happening under his nose."

Zuma's government also came under pressure from some key allies after the ruling, including Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of the country's largest trade union federation, Cosatu.

The Cwele case "is the kind of thing that can only happen in a country that is close to becoming a banana republic," Vavi told a local radio station.

Analysts said both the minister and Zuma are likely to face tough questions about national security after the ruling.

"This is the minister of state security, the country's top spy and by far one of the most influential politicians in this country," said Hennie van Vuuren of the Institute for Security Studies.

"His wife has been implicated in transnational organised crime that took place at the time of his appointment. Did the intelligence agencies know about this or not? If not, why not? If so, did they inform the president at the time? And if they informed him, did President Zuma act?"

The conviction is the latest stain on South Africa's security services, after the police's crime intelligence chief, Richard Mdluli, was arrested in March over the 1999 murder of a fellow officer who was reportedly his rival in a love triangle.

The country's former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi was handed a 15-year prison sentence in August last year for taking cash from an organised crime boss.

© 2011 AFP

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