Rights Commission Takes on Armscor
In an unusual test case, the SA Human Rights Commission has requested Armscor to release sensitive details of an internal corruption investigation in which it exonerated itself and its deals with an arms company.
The case will pit the public interest in alleged corruption against the defence and security interests of South Africa by invoking the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
It follows whistleblowers' six-year battle to get access to a full internal Armscor report on investigations into corruption allegations, which is also the subject of an inquiry by auditor-general Shauket Fakie.
The allegations relate to the state arms requisition body's 1990s contracts with African Defence Systems (ADS), an arms company also under the spotlight in the Schabir Shaik corruption trial in Durban in terms of its links with French arms deal beneficiary Thint.
In a letter to Armscor, the Human Rights Commission said the Promotion of Access to Information Act overrode state security and other confidentiality obligations if disclosure was in the public interest, particularly if it was likely to reveal irregularities.
Armscor has until Friday to respond to the request for the documents attached to the report, which it claims contain confidential state and commercial information that are exempted by the act.
Commission lawyer Kaya Zweni said that should Armscor not respond satisfactorily this week, the act required that the case go to the high court.
Zweni acknowledged that it was "not a clear-cut case" and the commission regarded the challenge to Armscor as "a test case".
"The commission is, in terms of the act, mandated, inter alia, to monitor the implementation of the act and ... assist any person wishing to exercise a right contemplated in this act," Zweni wrote in a letter to Armscor.
The letter explained that the commission was taking up the chief whistleblower Fritz Louw's appeal against Armscor's decision to withhold the information because the act provided for "mandatory disclosure in public interests", if the disclosure "would reveal evidence of a substantial contravention" of the law and if the public interest clearly outweighed the harm of the revelations.
Zweni argued that this provided for "an override" of all the grounds for refusal, with the exception of revenue information, and meant that the "record must nevertheless be disclosed".
In 2002, Armscor relented in terms of the act and released the main report to Louw, a former ADS employee, but is still refusing to release the attachments.
Zweni said that should the attachments be released, they would be referred to Fakie, whose first forensic spot-check on Louw's allegations would be tabled in parliament before the end of the year.
Fakie took up the case last year after it became apparent that other state agencies lacked the technical skills to investigate the 72 complaints.
Louw, an electronics engineer, first sounded the alarm on corruption allegations in 1998 while an employee of ADS.
The alleged irregularities occurred in Operation Cocro, a project to upgrade surface-to-air missile systems with the help of Thomson-CSF of France while the arms embargo was still in force.
Johannesburg-based ADS and parent company Thales in France have consistently declined to comment on the allegations.
Bertus Cilliers, Armscor spokesman, confirmed that Armscor had received the commission's request but declined to comment, saying that the company would communicate directly with the commission.
Armscor's investigation into itself concluded that some deficiencies, some minor and some of more concern, existed in ADS undertakings to upgrade the Cactus surface-to-air missile system.
No instances of fraud or collusion between ADS and Armscor were found*. Disciplinary steps and a change in contractual arrangements followed.
With acknowledgements to Christelle Terreblanche and the Sunday Argus.
* Sounds a lot like the JIT's Arms Deal report.