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Skukuza court closure put on hold by Justice Department (South Africa)

Landé Willemse, Lowvelder | September 20, 2019

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An unexpected decision to close down Skukuza Regional Court and move it almost 100 kilometres away from the Kruger National Park has been stopped by the Department of Justice.

The low-key decision of suddenly closing this valuable environmental court baffled people close to the fight against poaching, specifically rhino poaching.

Chrispin Phiri, spokesman for the justice ministry, said they had no knowledge of the decision, and expected full disclosure.

“We have made the minister aware of this motion of closing down the court and had put a temporary stop on the closing of Skukuza Court until we can get behind the reasons why the decision was made.”

Phiri said they understood how important this court is.

Original photo as published by The Lowvelder.

The judge president of Mpumalanga, Judge Francis Legodi, said he had started an investigation into the matter.

“The issue of closure of Skukuza Court has been brought to my attention and I am presently consulting with relevant stakeholders concerning the alleged closure of the court. I may mention it has always been my view that courts must be brought closer to the victims of crime for obvious reasons, and this is still my view, which has been made clear to relevant stakeholders in the past.

“For this, I would still prefer Skukuza Court to continue to operate in Skukuza. However, a final decision in this regard will be taken once I have consulted with other stakeholders.”

Skukuza Court Renowned for Fighting Rhino Poaching

Skukuza Court has been recognised, both nationally and internationally, as the heart of the fight against rhino poaching in South Africa. Serious cases are tried in this court, including cases in which suspects are linked to a poached rhino, where repeat offenders have been rearrested, where syndicates are involved and where rangers are arrested for rhino poaching.

The court boasts a 99.8 per cent conviction rate and up until recently had a 100 per cent success rate in opposed bail applications.

Since its inception, the court has finalised approximately 80 cases, with sentences ranging between 12 and 40 years. There are currently 72 cases still on the court roll with new cases being added almost weekly.

Elise Daffue of Stop Rhino Poaching, earlier this week confirmed that concerted efforts to close the court has been lurking since mid-2017.

“So much effort, unseen, dangerous and often thankless, goes into arresting a rhino poacher. The only thing that keeps our rangers going is the knowledge that, thanks to their efforts, these suspects won’t be back to poach and that they will receive their due justice in court.”

Skukuza Regional Court has set the bar for solid rhino convictions in South Africa and has been the biggest success story of the challenging campaign to save the rhino.

“Losing this court would be a considerable blow, not just to our dwindling rhino population, but very much to the rangers who give everything to keep them safe.”

South Africa’s previous minister of environmental affairs, the late Dr Edna Molewa, welcomed the opening of the Skukuza Court in the Kruger National Park in April 2017 by stating, “Having a regional court in Skukuza will ensure that the case turnaround times for rhino poaching and related cases are expedited, thus making a significant contribution to tackling the illicit trade in rhino horn and other related activities.”

Ike Phaahla, spokesman for SANParks, said they were investigating. “We have heard of the rumour and are working closely with the judge president to investigate the matter.”

According to sources close to the investigation, the decision to close the court was allegedly made by Naomi Engelbrecht, the current regional court president.

Engelbrecht was not available for comment.