The Johannesburg high court on Wednesday ordered that former Mozambican finance minister Manuel Chang be extradited to the United States to face charges stemming from a scandal that triggered a sovereign debt default in his home country five years ago.
The high court order overturns an earlier directive by Justice Minister Ronald Lamola that Chang be extradited to Mozambique, where he is also wanted on charges related to a fraudulent $200-million scheme he authorised between 2013 and 2014.
Mozambique’s Fórum de Monitoria do Orçamento (FMO), an umbrella body of watchdog NGOs, approached the high court to halt his return to Mozambique for fear that he would be granted immunity from prosecution for actions undertaken while he was a member of government. It asked that instead he be extradited to the US.
After hearing the application, Judge Margaret Victor extended an order that forbade Lamola from proceeding with his extradition to South Africa’s neighbour until she had ruled on the matter.
Victor on Thursday said she would hand down her full judgment next week. The justice ministry said Lamola was studying the order.
“The ministry will study the written judgment as soon as it is made available and
communicate a way forward in due course,” it said.
Chang was detained at OR Tambo International Airport in late December 2018 on an arrest warrant issued on behalf of the United States, where he has been indicted on corruption charges.
The following month, the US asked Pretoria to extradite him to stand trial. Mozambique swiftly followed suit, and Lamola’s predecessor, Michael Masutha, decided he should be extradited to Mozambique to stand trial in the so-called Hidden Debts case.
Chang was allegedly fleeing to Dubai to escape the fallout from the $200-million loans scam, which had crippled the Mozambican fiscus.
Chang was the finance minister at the centre of the loans from the Swiss bank Credit Suisse and the Russian bank VTB Capital to buy a fleet of tuna fishing boats and military patrol vessels.
The vessels were delivered, but some $200-million of the money involved in the deals was allegedly siphoned off as bribes. The fishing boats have never been utilised in any significant way for their original purpose, while the military boats are rotting in Pemba’s harbour.
After Lamola took office, he successfully approached the high court to challenge the decision to send Chang back to Mozambique on the basis that he still enjoyed immunity in his home country. The high court then sent the matter back to the justice ministry to reconsider while Chang continued to languish in a South African jail.
In August, Lamola finally decided to extradite him to Mozambique after all. FMO proceeded to court to challenge the decision, citing a ministerial memorandum with expert advice suggesting that the risk remained that the former minister would not be prosecuted by Mozambican authorities.
The memorandum was discovered incidentally by the lawyers for FMO, and not formally filed as part of the ministry’s papers. This was so, FMO’s counsel Max du Plessis SC submitted, because it undermined Lamola’s case.
The minister had argued that it would violate the separation of powers if the high court were to interfere with his decision on Chang’s extradition.
Mozambique has argued that it has been planning to prosecute Chang for years.