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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 October 2007, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK
South Africa's Scorpions unmasked
Peter Biles
BBC News, Johannesburg

S Africa's Directorate of Special Operations logo  (official logo from DSO website)
The Scorpions are the equivalent of the FBI

South Africa's elite crime-fighting unit, The Scorpions, is in the public spotlight after confirmation that it has been running an investigation into national police chief, Jackie Selebi, who is also the current head of Interpol.

The Scorpions obtained arrest and search warrants for Mr Selebi last month, but the arrest warrant was subsequently cancelled, and a review is to be conducted.

The Scorpions consists primarily of investigators who work hand in hand with prosecutors in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

The FBI-style Scorpions unit was set up to fight high-profile crime, and it remains independent of the South African Police Service.

It is the fierce inter-agency rivalry between The Scorpions and the police that is thought to lie at the heart of the goings-on that have allegedly involved the police commissioner.

South Africa's national Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi
Police chief Jackie Selebi is the current head of Interpol

It is not clear why the Scorpions were investigating Mr Selebi, but local media reports have said the probe has dealt with allegations that may include corruption, fraud, defeating the ends of justice and racketeering.

Selebi has denied any wrongdoing. "These hands are clean. I am not involved in any criminal activity," he says.

Questionable friends

Questions remain about Mr Selebi's alleged close links to businessman Glen Agliotti, who is accused of involvement in the murder of mining magnate, Brett Kebble.

He was shot and killed while driving his car in Johannesburg's northern suburbs in September 2005.

Although car hijacking is commonplace in South Africa, the killing bore all the hallmarks of a mafia-style assassination.

Mr Agliotti was arrested more than a year later, and has since admitted that he played a role in what he said was an "assisted suicide", planned by Kebble.

The case against Mr Agliotti has been adjourned until January, but he is also facing separate charges of drug dealing.

Mr Selebi has said that Mr Agliotti is "his friend, finish and klaar", a South African expression meaning "end of story".

Political allies

The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, has accused President Thabo Mbeki of trying to protect his ally, Commissioner Selebi.

For nearly a year, the DA has been demanding that Selebi should resign or be suspended because of his alleged links to the criminal underworld and organised crime.

The DA leader, Helen Zille, says it seems clear that the recent suspension of Vusi Pikoli, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, was motivated by a desire to protect Mr Selebi.

Vusi Pikoli, South Africa's suspended chief prosecutor (image: SA National Prosecuting Agency)
Pikoli was suspended reportedly while investigating Selebi

Mr Pikoli was suspended by President Mbeki on 23 September, ostensibly because of a breakdown in the relationship with Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla.

However it is now known that at the time of his suspension, Pikoli had obtained the arrest and search warrants for Mr Selebi, although they had not been executed.

Mr Pikoli's suitability to hold office is to be examined by a commission of inquiry, headed by the former parliamentary speaker, Frene Ginwala.

Opposition concerns

However, Ms Zille says she has written to the Presidency, requesting a meeting with Mr Mbeki and calling on him to break his silence on the affair.

The government has denied that President Mbeki acted to protect his police chief.

Political analyst, Raenette Taljaard who is a columnist for The Times newspaper, says the fibre of the South African state is being tested.

"The president's behaviour has been lamentable", she says.

South African President Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki's successor will inherit a divided party

"Mbeki has, in all probability, also unified his tripartite alliance foes who are exploiting every misjudgement on his part to coalesce their forces for the ANC congress in December".

ANC members will be choosing their leader for the next five years when they hold their national conference in Polokwane.

The ANC is divided over the leadership issue.

At the very least, the complex web of events within the NPA and the police points to a nasty turf war.

The Khampepe Commission of Inquiry in 2006 looked at the mandate of the Scorpions and whether the unit should be incorporated into the police.

The commission concluded that they should remain separate, although the law enforcement component of the Scorpions is overseen by the Minister of Safety and Security.

The Scorpions have a high conviction rate in their fight against organised crime, but they are also accused of adopting an over-zealous approach.

It is claimed that on occasions, they have strayed into intelligence gathering which is not their role, and that they have made use of private security companies.



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