SANDF soldier accused of poaching: Rangers shot at me for no reason

They allegedly had rhino horn, a firearm and ammunition in their possession.

MBOMBELA – Closing arguments were presented by counsel for the state and defence in the highly publicised rhino-poaching trial of Mr Leonard Bhuti Mashego, a soldier and chef in the employ of the South African National Defence Force and his co-accused, Mr Micheal Sithole, on Tuesday.

Both accused’s legal representatives maintained that their clients were not guilty of the 23 poaching-related charges levelled against them. On Tuesday during the conclusion of the accused’s case, it was claimed that authorities had framed the two for rhino poaching to cover up the shooting of Mashego, an apparently innocent man.

Read: “We were framed” says poaching accused in Nelspruit Ragional Court.

The trial against Mashego and Sithole commenced in 2010 after their arrest in the early morning hours of September 25 that year. During the course of the trial, Kruger National Park (KNP) game rangers and investigators Mr Frik Rossouw and Mr Cobus de Wet from the KNP’s Environmental Crime Services testified that the two had been found on either side of the Kruger’s fence, close to a rhino-poaching scene, on that date.

They allegedly had rhino horn, a firearm, ammunition and other weapons used in the poaching of rhino and rhino horn removal in their possession. According to the testimony of game rangers who may not be identified, Mashego pointed his firearm towards the rangers, whereafter they opened fire. Mashego was shot in his shoulder.

On Tuesday, his attorney, Mr Auper Klaas Khoza, said the game rangers had acted wrongfully in shooting Mashego. Khoza said a case of attempted murder should have been investigated against the game rangers. No such case had been opened. He argued that the poaching charges against Mashego were merely a ploy by the authorities to evade liability for shooting his client without cause.

In January Mashego swore that he had done nothing wrong at the time of his arrest. He explained that he had been searching for his cattle that had gotten lost four days prior.

Sithole testified that his arrest, too, came out of the blue. According to him, he had been digging for special herbs when he heard rangers calling him from afar. When he reached the rangers, Sithole was told to lie down. He said guns and rhino horn were propped up next to him. According to him, he was photographed next to these objects. His attorney, Mr Daniel Mabunda, said these photos were used to frame his client.

Mashego and Khoza both argued that the state’s witnesses, who had testified one after the other since 2013, had contradicted each other. Although ballistic evidence was previously presented to link the events of September 25 with the poaching of three more rhino on June 10 and September 22 that year.

Khoza contested that the state’s case relied purely on circumstantial evidence. It was argued on behalf of both accused that the state had not proved its case beyond reasonable doubt. Senior state advocate Ms Isabet Erwee plead for a guilty verdict, arguing to the contrary. The magistrate, Mr André Geldenhuys, has provisionally reserved judgement until April 21.

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