The Western Cape High Court heard an appeal after suspects held in connection with an international dating scam were denied bail.
PHOTO: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp
- The alleged Black Axe internet romance scammers launched an appeal for bail in the Western Cape High Court.
- They were arrested in Cape Town in a joint operation involving the FBI, Interpol and the Hawks.
- They are alleged to have scammed around $6.8 million from lonely people looking for love.
The alleged internet romance scammers, who are wanted for extradition to the US, launched an appeal for bail in the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday.
Perry Osagiede, Enorense Izevbiege, Franklin Edosa Osagiede, Osariemen Eric Clement, Collins Owhofasa Otughwor, Musa Mudashiru, Toritseju Gabriel Otubu, and Prince Ibeabuchi Mark were arrested in Parklands, Cape Town, last year.
They are alleged to be the hierarchy of a chapter of the Black Axe syndicate, which is said to specialise in confidence tricks on the internet.
They were arrested in a joint operation with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Secret Service, Interpol and the Hawks. Computers and cellphones were seized.
Only Otubu was successful in getting bail.
The others are in custody in Pollsmoor as the extradition proceedings, for them to stand trial in the US, play out in a different court in Cape Town.
They are alleged to have scammed US citizens and other victims worldwide out of around $6.8 million.
Eric Ntabazalila, spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), said the charges they face in the US in the “dating scam” are wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering, conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.
READ | Hawks, FBI partnership brings down eight ‘romance’ scammers in R100m international fraud case
They allegedly persuaded unsuspecting long-distance lovers to loan them large amounts of money, so they could resolve a business crisis.
When they went to court to apply for bail, the matter was initially postponed when their high-end immigration lawyers argued the State must first convert the charges to South African equivalents – dual criminality – so the court would know how to deal with the bail application.
In South Africa, the harsher the allegation, and the higher the scheduled category of the crime, the more difficult it is to get bail.
On the lower schedules, the onus falls on the State to oppose bail and to explain why.
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On the higher schedules, the accused must convince the court why they should get bail. This usually involves proving that they are not a flight risk.
The court heard that the presiding magistrate at their bail application, Ronel Oliver, ruled that, for the bail application, it was not up to her to decide which schedule the crimes fall under, but they would not be granted bail either.
On Tuesday, Judge Daniel Thulare heard arguments from their lawyers and the State on whether or not Oliver had made a mistake by denying bail.
Advocate John van der Berg, author of the legal textbook Bail, argued:
The magistrate made a procedural misdirection, and her ruling was wrong.
William Booth, the lawyer for one of the accused, said Oliver had also made a mistake in treating them as a group when deciding on bail, and not as individuals who face different charges.
“Everybody has the right to freedom,” said Booth.
The prosecutor, Robin Lewis, said it was the accused who had applied for bail, and they could have provided more information.
He said that, in one case, a place of business was just presented as the name of a company on the internet, with no supporting documents on how many staff are employed, or what the business’ income was.
They have been under surveillance for several years.
He said US investigators had around 100 000 documents of evidence and retrieved emails to show they were part of Black Axe.
He said that, even if they were not part of Black Axe, as alleged, the investigators had evidence of their connections to fraud and money laundering, working together as a syndicate, and two cellphones had already been found in their cells in Pollsmoor Prison.
An examination of the cellphones showed that one of the addresses used in the alleged scam was used to communicate from prison.
Thulare reserved judgment.