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Shrien Dewani walks free as South African court throws out case

Last updated on: December 08, 2014 21:20 IST

Shrien Dewani sits in court as the judge throws out the case against him owing to weak evidence. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

British-Indian millionaire Shrien Dewani, accused of hiring hitmen to kill his Indo-Swedish bride during their honeymoon here in 2010, was acquitted on Monday by a South African court that dismissed the case against him, ending a four-year-long dramatic murder saga.

Western Cape high court deputy judge Jeanette Traverso threw out the high-profile case against 34-year-old Dewani even before he started his defence against the accusation that he plotted to kill his 28-year-old wife Anni Hindocha.

Traverso said the prosecution’s case against Dewani was weak and that she can see no reasonable prospect that she might find him guilty once she has also heard his defence.

The evidence presented by the prosecution fell “far below the threshold” of what a reasonable court could convict on, the judge ruled in a case that has grabbed international headlines.

She said the evidence of the prosecution’s main witness, taxi driver Zola Tongo, was “riddled with contradictions” and “highly debatable”.

Dewani was accused of hiring three men -- taxi driver Tongo, Mziwamadoda Qwabe and Xolile Mngeni -- to kill Anni on their honeymoon in South Africa in 2010. Anni was kidnapped and then murdered in Gugulethu township near Cape Town on November 13, 2010.

Mngeni was sentenced to life in prison for the murder but died in jail. Qwabe was sentenced to 25 years. Tongo was sentenced to 18 years following a plea bargain deal.

Dewani lost a four-year legal battle in the United Kingdom to avoid extradition to South Africa, and was sent in April this year to stand trial. Dewani is expected to return home to Britain soon.

Dewani’s lawyers applied for his discharge at the end of the prosecution’s case, arguing that the evidence against him was so weak he should be acquitted.

Announcing her ruling, Traverso said: “The accused is found not guilty of this charge.”

Traverso said his application for discharging him is granted and he is found not guilty on five charges.

She said the only reason not to grant the application would be in the hope that Dewani would implicate himself if he gave evidence.          But to do so would be a “manifest misdirection”, the judge said.

A supporter holds a picture of Anni Dewani as Anni's brother Anish Hindocha (R) leaves a court with family members in Cape Town . Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Dewani walked out of the dock and down the stairs to the holding cell without any expression on his face. His family burst into tears and embraced each other after the verdict. A clearly disappointed Hindocha family left the court immediately.

In a statement read outside the Western Cape High Court, the Hindocha family said: “We feel really, really sad because we have not heard the full story. Shrien lived a double life.”

Anni's sister, Ami Denborg, later said: “The justice system has failed us.” Her brother, Anish Hindocha, had last week implored Dewani to “tell the world what happened the night she died”.

The Hindocha family, who had said it would it be a “nightmare” if the trial did not continue, bowed their heads amid shouting from the public gallery.

The judge said that she understood the plight of Anni’s family, who had wanted Dewani to take the stand to get closure on the death of their daughter, but could not succumb to public opinion and had to apply the law.

Acknowledging the huge public interest in the case, Traverso said she could not allow public opinion to influence her decision in applying the law, as if courts allow this, it would lead to anarchy.

Dewani listened intently as key evidence against him was criticised by the judge as she gave her ruling over almost three hours.

Prosecutors in the six-week-long trial said Dewani was a closet homosexual, and needed to find a way out of his marriage.

Dewani, from Bristol, admitted at the start of the trial that he is bisexual and visited male bondage prostitutes. But he also insisted that he loved his new wife Anni and had no hand in what happened.

Traverso, the second most senior in the province, has made no secret of her dismay at the prosecution case. She rejected evidence about Dewani’s sexuality as “irrelevant” and repeatedly lambasted the prosecutors leading it.

Traverso spent the first two sessions of the morning highlighting in great detail, the inconsistencies in the evidence of the state’s key witness, taxi driver Tongo, who is now serving out a jail term.

The entire story as told by Tongo is “highly improbable”, Traverso said.

The judge said that even if Dewani had entered the witness box, the state would be left with a weak case that would not pass legal muster. “The court cannot cherry-pick from the evidence -- reliable corroboration is required,” Traverso said.

She discredited the evidence at the trial by Tongo, adding that the picture became even bleaker by this testimony for the prosecution's case.

Dewani's legal team brought an application for his discharge application, if the court believed there was no credible evidence at the close of the prosecution's case.

Dewani’s trial started in October after he returned to Cape Town a few months earlier and spent time in an institution for monitoring his mental health. Dewani had fought a lengthy legal battle to avoid extradition to South Africa.

Dewani has always denied plotting with others to murder his bride, who was found shot dead in the back of their taxi after the couple were hijacked during a late-night tour of a township. The prosecution had alleged the men carried out the killing for Dewani.

Speaking outside court, South African National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Nathi Ncube said: "It is unfortunate that Dewani has been acquitted because we believe that he was involved.”

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