Bigger fish in the dock in Lesotho trial

Business Report Sunday Independent
June 11, 2000

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) R25-million corruption trial restarts in Maseru next week. It promises to be a landmark case – a small African country clamping down on corruption which had been supported by large multinational construction companies.

International interest in the case has been building, since the trial is being monitored by the European Union and the World Bank. Both helped fund the R10-billion project to export water from the Lesotho mountains to South Africa’s economic and industrial heartland in Gauteng.

They are not very interested in accused number one – Masupha Ephraim Sole, former chief executive of the LHWP, accused of receiving bribes. Of far more concern and interest are the alleged bribers: Dumez International; Cegelec – a partnership which includes CGEE-Alstrom and General Electric, Coyne et Bellier, Sogreah and Spie Batignolles, of France; Lahmeyer International GmbH and Asea Brown Boveri Schaltanlagen GmbH, of Germany; Asea Brown Boveri Generation AG, Sweden; Acres International of Canada and Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners of the UK.

If convicted, the accused face being barred from future World Bank and EU projects.

This is believed to be the first time in Africa that such an array of international operators have been called to account for the corruption and backhanders that have long been suspected to be a feature of big-ticket construction deals the world over.

As one senior counsel after another argued in the High Court in Maseru last week that his client had been improperly indicted, it was impossible not to think of the discomfort the international engineering firms and Sole felt when exposed to the light of accountability.

Judge Brandon Cullinan, a former chief justice of Lesotho, called out of retirement to deal with the biggest corruption case in the mountain kingdom’s history, postponed last week’s hearing until Monday, to allow the prosecution to prove that the people it had cited were authorised directors or servants of the companies concerned.

If the charges in the indictment – compiled by two advocates of the Durban bar, Guido Penzhorn and Hjalmar Woker – show that Sole’s secret bank accounts in South Africa and Switzerland had been filled with massive payments from 13 of the consultants and contractors involved in the project are proved, they would be seen as parasites feeding off Lesotho’s impoverished people in need of economic development.

Any hope of anonymity for the 19 defendants who were in court last week were dashed when the judge gave permission for TV cameras in court.

Sole, 52, a Mosotho who trained as an engineer in Canada, featured as the main recipient of the alleged 16 counts of bribery in all of the charges.

Sole returned from Canada to head the LHWP and with a salary package of some R250 000. He became the highest paid individual in the tiny kingdom.

Sole also faces two charges of fraud and one of perjury arising from a 1995 disciplinary hearing which found him guilty of 22 of the 23 charges.

He said his only accounts were in Lesotho, but Penzhorn and Woker discovered he had a Standard Bank account in Ladybrand and substantial transfers had allegedly been made to it from accounts in Switzerland.

The indictment said Sole had accounts with the Union Bancaire Prive and the Banque Multi Commerciale in Geneva and the Union Bank of Switzerland in Geneva.

Sole said: “They must prove that I had these secret accounts in Switzerland before they can prove that I took the money.

“Do you think those Swiss banks will come to Lesotho and give evidence against their own clients?”

Also indicted are Jacobus Michiel du Plooy, a South African from Ficksburg whose Swiss bank account was allegedly used as a conduit for bribes of at least $375 000, paid to Sole by Highlands Water Venture, comprising Kier International of the UK and Impregilo SpA of Italy.

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