Mojapelo panel has six weeks to investigate Russian ship arms claim

Headed by a retired supreme court of appeal judge, the panel will look into what transpired and whether legal obligations were flouted

Mojapelo panel has six weeks to investigate Russian ship arms claim

The panel headed by retired supreme court of appeal judge Phineas Mojapelo has six weeks to conclude its investigation into allegations by the US ambassador to South Africa that weapons were loaded onto the Russian vessel, Lady R, in Simon’s Town in December.

It then has to submit its findings to President Cyril Ramaphosa within two weeks, the presidency said, which would make it due in late July. But the panel could request an extension.

Ramaphosa’s office on Sunday announced that the three-person panel would comprise Mojapelo, Leah Gcabashe SC and former deputy minister of basic education Enver Surty.

The government is seeking to establish the circumstances that led to the docking of the Lady R cargo ship in Simon’s Town, the alleged loading of cargo and its departure in the period 6 to 9 December last year.

“The panel has been tasked to establish persons who were aware of the cargo ship’s arrival, and, if any, the contents to be off-loaded or loaded, the departure and destination of the cargo,” the presidency said.

“Furthermore, the panel will evaluate whether constitutional, legal or other obligations were complied with in relation to the cargo ship’s arrival, its stay, the loading or off-loading of its contents, and its departure.”

It stressed that Ramaphosa decided to appoint a panel chaired by a retired judge because of the seriousness of the allegations made by the United States, as well the extent of public interest in the controversy and its effect on South Africa’s international relations.

US ambassador Reuben Brigety raised a diplomatic storm on 11 May when, during a media briefing, he accused South Africa of supplying arms to Russia in defiance of international sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine. 

South African officials say Washington has insisted that it has proof that weapons were loaded onto the vessel but that it is only prepared to do so in the context of a credible inquiry, without defining what that would look like.

A government task team has in the meanwhile begun an internal investigation into what transpired at the Simon’s Town naval base. It was reported in an article carried on Semafor news website last week that this investigation has found evidence suggesting that a small consignment of arms were illegally loaded onto the vessel by a private company.

Defence Minister Thandi Modise has bluntly denied that the government has supplied arms to Russia. Moscow has also issued a denial. 

The Mojapelo panel’s report will include recommendations on any steps that may need to be taken in light of their findings or as a result of any breaches that may have occurred, the presidency said.

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