Criminal fugitives 'live the high life in SA'

South Africa has become "a safe haven" for notorious international fugitives because it is relatively isolated and there is the perception that the justice system can be easily manipulated.

This has raised questions about whether the country's immigration and extradition laws need to be stiffened, according to legal experts.

Last week, the Saturday Star reported that Italian fugitive Vito Palazzolo was to be shipped back to his home country after losing his appeal against a 2006 conviction for "Mafia association", in which he was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment.

Another high-profile case was that of German fraudster Jurgen Harksen, who conned millions out of wealthy Capetonians. He and Palazzolo were among several fugitives who lived the high life in Cape Town.

Palazzolo, had a home in Fresnaye and is well known in wine circles in Franschhoek, where he owns a wine farm. He also uses the name Robert von Palace-Kolbatschenko.

Harksen had luxury homes, a yacht and several expensive vehicles.

Both men had strong links to high-powered politicians.

Interpol head office said hunting down fugitives fell within one of its six priority areas. The apprehension of wanted people was one of the most important fields of activity of global law enforcement.

According to its website, "Fugitives pose a serious threat to public safety worldwide. They are mobile and opportunistic; they frequently finance their continued flight from the law through further criminal activities, which may result in criminal charges in more than one country."

Charles Goredema of the Institute for Security Studies' Organised Crime and Money Laundering Programme warned in a report that a 2006 study by Greg Salter found that "South Africa is regarded favourably by many international criminals as reassuringly distant from the rest of the world, and in particular other countries' law enforcement agencies, and thus as a place they might hide out safely".

He noted that the real estate sector was particularly attractive to foreign funds of questionable origins.

The institute's head of corruption and governance, Hennie van Vuuren, said fugitives who were linked to politicians underscored the need for political party funding to be regulated.

One of Cape Town's top extradition lawyers, who has dealt with some high-profile fugitive cases, said the country's extradition procedures were in line with those of other democratic countries around the world.

"It allows fugitives the full protection of the law. The question that should be asked is: Does it strike a balance in the books or in how it is been applied by the National Prosecuting Authority? There could be a slight imbalance in favour of the fugitive."

He said there was a perception that South Africa was a popular safe haven for fugitives for a variety of reasons. These included a similar timeline to Europe, being an isolated destination with modern technology, and the perception that "our criminal justice system does not function at its optimum capacity".

And there was a perception that the system could be manipulated to avoid extradition.

But the US and UK had far more fugitives than South Africa.

Van Vuuren argued that extradition was an "intense violation of rights", and each case should be taken on merit.

"It's hectic to face. You have to leave your family behind, your job and home. If you go to another country to face charges against you, you have to think about what you will do, or where you will stay, or how you will support yourself if you get bail. Who will represent you legally?"

Immigration attorney Julian Pokroy said many of the high-profile fugitives live under the radar until they are exposed by the media. While South Africa had a fairly liberal immigration regime, it did not make it easy for foreigners to get into the country.

"It does, however, make it easier for highly skilled foreigners and investors."

But corruption had eroded the department, and "any system that has a weak link will be easy to get through".

"Fraud is rife. It happens in Australia and the UK too. It's just a much bigger problem here."

This article was originally published on page 5 of The Star on August 01, 2009