Alleged Israeli Mob Member Faces Trial

An alleged Israeli mobster is facing charges in South Africa that include murder, kidnapping, robbery and intimidation.

The trial of Lior Saat next March will proceed following a ruling last week by Johannesburg’s High Court that it has the jurisdiction to try him. It is considered one of the highest-profile South African criminal trials in years and represents a potential point of embarrassment for the country’s Jews.

The trial has been dominated by a series of dramatic events: the daylight murder of a prominent Johannesburg socialite and key witness, allegations of police involvement in the kidnapping of the accused, a challenge to the jurisdiction of the court and the judge recusing herself. In addition, two other potential witnesses in the case have been slain.

Hazel Crane, a wealthy businesswoman and close friend of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of ex-President Nelson Mandela, was gunned down last month near her home in an affluent Johannesburg suburb by an unknown assailant. She was killed while driving to court to attend the trial.

Crane, 52, was previously married to Shai Avissar, reportedly the head of the Israeli mafia in South Africa, who was murdered in 1999, although his body was only discovered in a shallow grave near Pretoria, about 30 miles from Johannesburg, in February 2000.

Saat is accused of murdering Avissar with a baseball bat and a gun, with the assistance of another Israeli mobster. One of the other charges against Saat alleges that he held a pistol to Crane’s head in 2000, threatening her life if she testified against him about Avissar.

Until her death, Crane was in court almost every day during the first three weeks of the trial, often accompanied by Madikizela-Mandela. Crane said her life had been threatened on several occasions, and bodyguards often accompanied her to court.

The day after Crane’s killing, police said they wanted to question Amir Moila, alias David Milner, in connection with the shooting. At the time Avissar’s body was discovered, newspaper reports said Moila was wanted for questioning in regard to that murder.

In the meantime, Saat had entered a special plea: neither guilty nor not guilty. He alleged that the South African courts had no jurisdiction to try him, because he had been arrested illegally.

He claimed that he had been kidnapped in Maputo, Mozambique, which shares a border with South Africa, and then was illegally brought into South Africa in April 2001. There is no extradition treaty between South Africa and Mozambique.

On Dec. 3, Judge Geraldine Borchers accepted the police version of the arrest, ruling that the court had jurisdiction to hear the charges against Saat. Borchers added, however, that she would not preside at the trial. She said her views on Saat’s credibility, including a finding that he was capable of dishonesty, could be seen as affecting her impartiality as a judge.

In court proceedings on the legality of Saat’s arrest, it emerged that he had fled South Africa in March 2000, shortly after the discovery of Avissar’s body, using a false passport under the name Jonathan Cohen. At the time of his arrest in Mozambique, he was using the name Yosef Eden and had another false passport, this time an Israeli one. Police said he was arrested in Mozambique because his visa had expired.

An apparent attempt was made on Saat’s life in downtown Johannesburg shortly after his arrest. An unknown gunman opened fire on the police vehicle transporting Saat and several other prisoners to court.

Saat was wounded in his buttocks. The prisoner next to him, facing a minor drug charge, was killed. No arrests have been made in the shooting. Saat now has a special police security escort at all times.