Amid heavy security, 19 suspects appeared in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court in connection with a spate of attempted bombings in Durban in July 2018 as well as a deadly attack on a Shi’a mosque outside Verulam in May. Unusually, media and the public were barred from proceedings on the grounds that it could impact on ongoing investigations.
The veil of secrecy around proceedings at the Verulam Magistrate’s Court was so tight that posters were stuck to the glass windows of the courtroom to prevent any glimpse of the 19 suspects who appeared in the dock. The full set of charges that they face has yet to be revealed, but Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed to Daily Maverick that those who appeared in court are suspected of involvement in both the Durban bombing cases in July and the Verulam mosque attack in May.
This follows initial denials from authorities that the two cases were linked – despite Daily Maverick reporting on the undeniable similarities between the incendiary devices found at the two scenes.
A joint statement from the Ministry of Police and the Hawks said that the suspects would face charges of “murder, attempted murder, extortion, kidnapping, contraventions of the Explosives Act and arson”.
Mulaudzi subsequently told Daily Maverick that the suspects would also be charged in terms of the Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities Act (POCDATARA).
Asked if this meant that authorities now believe the suspects to have links to extremist groups, Mulaudzi replied: “I don’t want to get into those details” – but he confirmed that this impression was correct.
“The case talks to the security of the country,” Mulaudzi said.
It was due to the fact that the case was “very sensitive”, the Hawks spokesperson said, that the unusual step had been taken of barring both the media and the public from court proceedings.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku told Daily Maverick:
“Due to the sensitive nature of the investigations and the possible ID parade, it would not be in the interest of justice to divulge the names and the identity of the accused, hence the state applied in terms of section 153 of the CPA [Criminal Procedure Act] for the proceedings to be in camera.”
Mulaudzi stressed that both the media and the public are barred – in terms of the magistrate’s order – from identifying the suspects, publishing their names, or even specifying the places where they were arrested.
It is believed that some of the suspects are of foreign nationality, however, as proceedings had to be postponed due to a lack of available translation services.
The Hawks spokesperson would not be drawn on which languages spoken by the suspects required translation.
The secrecy around the court proceedings adds to a general air of mystery surrounding the case.
When Police Minister Bheki Cele announced the arrests of the suspects, he said that “extortion” had been determined to be the likely underlying motive of the crimes.
Yet Woolworths spokesperson Kirsten Hewett told the Sunday Tribune that Woolworths – the supermarket chain where most of the incendiary devices were discovered – had not received any requests for money.
Asked for clarification on this by Daily Maverick, Hewett sent a statement from Woolworths thanking the authorities for “their support in the investigation”.
The Sunday Tribune also claimed it had received reports from three independent sources that at one of the homes raided by the Hawks, “the police confiscated a flag or flags linked to the so-called Islamic State”.
There was no mention of such details in the Hawks’ statement, but the unit did confirm that a “victim who was found chained and malnourished inside a dungeon in one of the houses” had been rescued. The individual is currently under police protection in hospital.
The Hawks say that investigations are continuing, while it is unclear for how long the ban on media reporting on the court proceedings will persist.
There is every indication, however, that authorities are treating the case as a matter of national importance with potentially far-reaching implications.