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By Chulumanco Mahamba

Digital Night Supervisor

Lesotho zama zamas sentenced to 45 years for murder

Two men from Lesotho have been sentenced to 45 years for murder, attempted murder, and illegal mining in Odendaalsrus, Free State.

Like other mining towns, Odendaalsrus in the Free State is seeing an increase in organised crime due to illegal mining, mostly by foreign nationals working with legitimate miners to steal gold and gold-related materials.

Two of these foreign nations are Taelo Manuel Mmereko, 39, and Koketso Azaih Futho, 39, from Lesotho, who were convicted and sentenced to 45 years of direct imprisonment on Wednesday for murder, attempted murder, possession of illegal firearms and ammunition, and illegal immigration.

At around midnight on 20 April 2020, during level 5 Covid-19 lockdown, the specialised units of the South African Police Service (Saps) and the Tactical Response Team (TRT) attached to the Bloemfontein cluster received an intelligence report about zama zamas who were extracting gold-bearing material from the Kudu old mine plant mine in Matjhabeng near Odendaalsrus.

Shootout between zama zamas and police

“Upon their arrival at this old mine, the suspects began shooting at the TRT members. These highly trained members of the SAPS retaliated by firing back. During the ensuing gun battle between zama zamas and the police, three illegal miners, who were later identified as Lesotho nationals, were fatally wounded, and two accused, Futho and Mmereko, sustained injuries,” said National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) regional spokesperson Mojalefa Senokoatsane.

Five 9-mm firearms and live ammunition were recovered and seized, while Futho and Mmereko were admitted to the hospital.

Prosecutor Brian Montsho told the court during the zama zamas’ trial that crimes related to illegal mining were on the rise in mining communities and that the state had to send a strong message to offenders of illegal mining about the severity of these crimes.

ALSO READ: Illegal mining kingpin shot dead while resisting arrest

“The accused had little respect for law enforcement agencies as they were prepared to shoot and kill members of the police, appointed to uphold law and order. The prosecutor further argued that illegal miners had become a huge problem to the communities as they had become laws themselves, and the mining towns were becoming unsafe due to their actions,” Senokoatsane said.

Accused claimed to be cattle herders

In their defence, Futho, Mmereko, and their legal representative argued that they should be acquitted on their three counts of murder because their fellow zama zamas were killed by the police during the shootout. They also argued that they were not involved in illicit mining but were looking for their lost cattle, as they are cattle herders.

“On cross-examination by Montsho, the accused could not answer why they sought cattle on a tarred road where the shooting happened and why they were without permits when the country was on level 5 lockdown,” Senokoatsane said.

The Odendaalsrus Regional Court found Mmereko and Futho guilty and sentenced them to 45 years of effective direct imprisonment. Each of the accused received a sentence of 15 years in direct jail for the three murder counts, five years for each of the two attempted murder counts (firing at the police), and two years for the illegal immigration charge. All other sentences are to run concurrently with the sentences on murder.

Clear statement to illegal miners

The NPA applauded the prosecution team for successfully prosecuting the matter and ensuring that the accused were sentenced appropriately for their crimes.

“The Prosecuting Authority envisages that these sentences will send a clear statement to illegal miners that the state is serious about fighting the scourge of illegal mining that is currently ravaging the once-thriving mining towns within the country,” Senokoatsane said.

ALSO READ: PICS: How to run an illegal mine – 141 ‘illegal immigrants’ nabbed

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