Gupta associates get bail as one brother becomes a fugitive

Police officers are seen inside the compound of the Gupta family in Johannesburg, Feb 14, 2018.
Police officers are seen inside the compound of the Gupta family in Johannesburg, Feb 14, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

JOHANNESBURG (BLOOMBERG) - On the same day that people linked to the three politically connected Gupta brothers were granted bail by a South African court after appearing on graft charges, one of the siblings, Ajay Gupta, was declared a fugitive.

Varun Gupta, former chief executive officer of Oakbay Resources and Energy, Nazeem Howa, former CEO of Oakbay Investments, Ronica Ragavan, acting CEO of Oakbay Investments and Ashu Chawla, CEO of the Gupta family’s Sahara Computers, were among the eight who appeared on Thursday (Feb 15).

While the three brothers weren’t directly named in the case, the South African police’s investigative Hawks unit said on Thursday that Ajay failed to turn himself in with regard to a separate probe and “is now regarded as fugitive".

“It is understood that he has personal protectors and they are being warned to either hand him over or they might face charges of directly aiding and abetting the fugitive,” the Hawks said.

The hearing in a Bloemfontein court in South Africa’s Free State province involved a farming project. It followed a day that began with a raid by the Hawks on the Gupta family compound in Johannesburg and ended with the resignation of President Jacob Zuma.

The Gupta family has been at the center of a number of corruption scandals that point to them using their friendship with Zuma to win contracts and influence government appointments. Zuma and the Guptas have denied wrongdoing.

Also appearing in Bloemfontein were Peter Thabethe and Takisi Masiteng of the Free State’s agricultural department, Seipati Dlamini, who has worked for the Department of Mineral Resources, and Kamal Vasram, who was a director of the farming project Estina and an employee of Sahara Computers. The companies Oakbay Investments, Estina and Aerohaven were also named in court documents.

The accused were released on bail ranging from 10,000 rand (S$1,100) to 200,000 rand with strict conditions and are scheduled to appear again in court on Aug. 17, the Hawks said.

MISSING FUNDS

The Free State case is related to a state-owned farm near the tiny hamlet of Vrede. It was leased to little-known Estina under a free 99-year contract in 2012 and the regional government agreed to help develop it, ostensibly to create 200 jobs. Earlier this month, prosecutors said most of the 220 million rand in public funds transferred to the company ended up in the hands of the Gupta family.

The High Court on Jan 19 gave the National Prosecuting Authority’s asset forfeiture unit permission to freeze the project’s assets and the bank accounts belonging to Atul Gupta, another of the three brothers. The crackdown came just weeks after acting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as head of the ruling African National Congress.

The suspects who appeared in court in Bloemfontein face charges including money-laundering, fraud and contravention of the Public Finance Management Act and the Companies Act, eNCA reporter Karyn Maughan said on her verified Twitter account.