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Legislators disband unit investigating corruption

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-10-24

South Africa's parliament voted Thursday to abolish the Scorpions, an elite unit that investigates graft among top politicians including the leader of the ruling African National Congress party, Jacob Zuma (photo).

South African lawmakers on Thursday voted to disband the elite Scorpions crime-fighting unit which has pursued high-profile graft cases against top politicians, including ruling party boss Jacob Zuma.
Smaller parties vocally opposed the abolishment of the unit, fearing it would leave a gap in law enforcement in a country plagued by crime, but the new law sailed through parliament 252-63 with the support of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The main opposition Democratic Alliance said it was part of the ANC's "season of madness," while the Inkatha Freedom Party's chief whip Koos van der Merwe said the "murder of the Scorpions" was a "day that will live on in infamy."
The decision to do away with the unit, which has gone after high-profile South Africans including graft-accused national police chief Jackie Selebi, created a storm of controversy.
Critics argue the ANC is trying to shield Zuma and other senior leaders from prosecution on corruption charges.
"The decision to kill the Scorpions is reckless political expediency to protect ANC leaders and members from criminal investigation and possible prosecution," Van der Merwe said during a lengthy parliamentary debate.
The Scorpions, officially known as the Directorate of Special Operations, have jailed Zuma's former financial adviser Schabir Shaik, former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni for fraud, and taken on scores of lawmakers in a high-priced travel voucher scam.
Zuma, like other victims of the unit, feel the Scorpions were manipulated to launch charges against him as part of a political conspiracy.
Corruption charges against Zuma -- who is widely expected to become president after next year's elections -- were thrown out of court last month, in a verdict that implied political meddling in his prosecution by arch rival Thabo Mbeki.
The ANC forced Mbeki to resign as president days after the ruling.
Mbeki set up the FBI-style unit within the National Prosecution Authority in 1999, amid rising levels of organised crime, to boost public doubts about the police in the wake of apartheid.
The ANC resolved in December to abolish the Scorpions and create a new elite unit within the police force, saying the move would strengthen the criminal justice system.
Security minister Nthati Mthetwa said tensions had arisen between the police and the Scorpions, who were accused of cherry-picking cases to boost their public image.
He said the new team of investigators would "take our fight against organised crime to higher levels" and reduce the incidence of violent robberies, cash heists, and trafficking in drugs and weapons.
The law creates a new Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation within the police ministry to deal with major cases.
The transfer has raised concern about current cases in the hands of the Scorpions, as well as the possible loss of skilled investigators.
A 2005 commission into the dissolution of the Scorpions showed it had a 90 percent conviction rate, bringing down 57 key syndicates with a financial crime value of 13 billion rand (1.1 billion dollars).
Lawmakers have assured that the transfer would not see the loss of any of the modern investigative techniques and technology that the Scorpions had used to pursue high-level crimes.

Date created : 2008-10-24