The former head of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund was cleared Wednesday of charges of holding rough diamonds that proved pivotal in the war crimes trial of ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor.
A Johannesburg magistrate court ruled that Jeremy Ractliffe had no case to answer because prosecutors had failed to provide enough evidence to back the charges.
“Mr Ractliffe, you are not guilty and the case is discharged,” said magistrate Renier Boshoff, after a two-hour trial.
Holding uncut diamonds without a permit is a crime in South Africa, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a 250,000 rand ($37,000, 25,650 euro) fine.
“I am feeling good, I had lots of support,” Ractliffe told reporters outside the court. “As far as I am concerned, I was innocent because I didn’t know” that holding the stones was illegal.
“I did not know that they were diamonds. I merely knew that they were said to be diamonds,” he said earlier in a statement to the court.
Ractliffe, once chief executive of Mandela’s Children’s Fund, had pleaded not guilty, telling the court that he did not know the three stones were diamonds, apparently given by Taylor to supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1997.
The existence of the stones had gone unnoticed for more than a decade until Campbell took the stand last year at The Hague to testify in Taylor’s trial for arming Sierra Leone rebels who paid him in “blood diamonds”, or gems used to finance conflicts.
Campbell testified that she had received a pouch of “dirty-looking stones” as a late-night gift she assumed came from Taylor after a 1997 dinner hosted by then-president Mandela.
Campbell told judges she gave the three uncut diamonds to Ractliffe, then the chief executive of the Children’s Fund, to “do something good with.”
He subsequently handed the diamonds over to police.
From the beginning, Ractliffe has insisted that he kept the stones hidden only to avoid bringing Mandela’s charity into disrepute.
He stepped down from the board of the Children’s Fund 12 days after acknowledging he had kept the diamonds for more than a decade, telling officials about them only when the stones came under the spotlight at the special Sierra Leone tribunal in The Hague.
After Campbell’s testimony at The Hague, Ractliffe confirmed that Campbell gave him the stones on September 26, 1997, as they and other guests of Mandela were on the luxurious Blue Train.
Campbell had wanted the fund to use them but Ractliffe said he did not want to involve the charity in any possible illegal activities.
“In the end I decided I should just keep them,” he said last year.
Taylor is still awaiting a verdict after his trial at The Hague closed on March 11.
War crimes prosecutors wanted to link Taylor to the gift to Campbell to back claims that he had taken a consignment of uncut diamonds to South Africa to sell or exchange for weapons for Sierra Leone rebels.
The first African head of state to face an international tribunal, Taylor pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on claims that he armed Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in exchange for illegally mined “blood diamonds”.
His trial heard gruesome testimony from victims of the Sierra Leone conflict, including a witness who said he pleaded with RUF rebels to cut off his remaining hand so they would spare his toddler son.