AN alarming number of criminal cases involving foreign nationals are being withdrawn from Nelson Mandela Bay magistrate’s courts because of a shortage of interpreters.
While no figures are available, it is believed hundreds of cases in the region have been withdrawn as a result, and the suspects released.
The situation, which police are calling a crisis, resulted in a meeting between police and court officials recently to set in place a process to determine just how many cases have been withdrawn.
Police officials became aware of the problem after an investigation last month revealed that a string of cases against various foreign drug- lords had been withdrawn due to a lack of interpreters.
Nelson Mandela Bay area court manager Temba Gola said the Eastern Cape was particularly badly affected, with interpreters having to be brought in mostly from Gauteng and the Western Cape. "We cannot deny that this is a problem. It is an administrative nightmare to try to arrange certain interpreters for some cases.
"We struggle to get interpreters in cases involving Somali, Ghanaian and Chinese nationals. These interpreters must be booked months in advance.
"These interpreters are sought by courts around the country, so it is a matter of finding availability with that specific language interpreter.”
Gola said an audit was under way at the Nelson Mandela Bay courts to establish how many cases had been struck off the roll over the past year.
Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court senior state prosecutor Clive Killian said the problem was receiving urgent attention.
"We recently had a management meeting where the relevant manager was tasked to find out exactly how many cases had been withdrawn due to no interpreter being available. Once we know the exact figure, we can look at what measures to take to address this.”
But this is cold comfort for police officers who have worked hard to arrest criminals only to see them let off on charges including murder, robbery and drug-dealing.
In frustration, they sent a letter to Killian last week demanding an explanation for the high number of cases being struck off the roll.
"In some instances the reasons for the case being withdrawn are not given in the docket,” a senior detective commander, who did not want to be named, said.
"We have now requested that reasons be given for all withdrawals – not only a select few.”
The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s head of criminal and procedural law, Professor Deon Erasmus, said: "It has been a problem for ages and, at the end of the day, is highly frustrating for the magistrates, prosecutors, detectives and victims of the crimes.
"The law states clearly that the accused is entitled to a speedy trial in a language that he or she can understand. In most cases, the accused states that he or she cannot understand English, forcing the courts to postpone the case to find an interpreter.”
Erasmus said the courts were compelled to withdraw cases after several postponements.
"It is a very common problem which the accused often use to their benefit.
"This also, to a degree, results in unrest within the community as residents see the people back on the streets [only weeks after being arrested],” he said.
Port Elizabeth trauma and drug counsellor John Preller said he was aware of cases in which people- and drug-trafficking suspects were released.
"What boggles the mind is that these people marry South African women and have no problem with communication at home, but all of a sudden when they are behind bars, it becomes an issue.”
Court interpreters must be accredited by the Justice Department and undergo language proficiency courses, both theoretical and practical, at the department’s training college.
A policeman, who cannot be named as he works undercover, said police put a lot of time and effort into investigations only to see the cases struck off the roll.
"This is a major problem – foreign nationals who have been arrested for various crimes are just set free without any fear of consequences,” he said.
"A large portion of the cases are drug-related and some involve several months of investigation. They simply exempt these cases from prosecution despite the time and resources used to arrest these guys.”
Humewood police station commander Brigadier Ronald Koll, whose precinct includes drug hotspot Central, said senior police and court officials had met last week to discuss the problems facing the detention and release of foreign nationals.
"We are in the process of addressing the issue and I have requested that at least four priority cases involving known drug-lords be placed back on the roll for prosecution.
"Certain flaws in the legal process involving foreigners in the country committing crimes have been identified. It is clear that they are using this to their advantage.”
Other senior police investigators said they would investigate the circumstances under which cases involving two Nigerian alleged drug kingpins – David "Lucky” Bosco, 36, and Athnetius "Willie” Njoku, 31 – who were arrested last month, had been withdrawn.
The two are allegedly linked to a multimillion-rand international drug-smuggling ring and were released on R3000 bail each, despite having previous convictions and seven pending drug-related cases.
"It will mean that every case that was withdrawn from the court roll has to be scrutinised, the dockets located and sent back to the prosecutors for a decision,” an officer said.
The Justice Department had not responded to questions by last night.