Ajay Gupta, right, and his brother Atul, during an interview in Johannesburg in 2011.

In South Africa, when Jacob Zuma was president, between 2009 and 2018, there was a shadow power. It was exercised by the businessmen Rajesh and Atul Gupta, who enjoyed during those almost ten years of almost absolute power protected by the head of state. The Guptas not only benefited from lucrative government contracts in bribes; They even came to propose names for the highest positions in the State, including that of the Minister of Finance, with the sole criterion of personal gain, according to the judicial commission that investigated the corruption plot they had orchestrated. In 2018, when it was impossible to hide, the Guptas fled to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. This Monday, the country’s police arrested them, the South African Ministry of Justice confirmed in a statement.

Rajesh, Atul and a third brother, Ajay – whose name did not appear on the arrest warrant that led to their arrest – arrived in South Africa from their native India in 1993, when the African country had just left the apartheid. They came from a wealthy family and did not come empty handed. In the 1990s, they began to build a large business conglomerate in the mining, media and information technology sectors. However, it was their friendship with Jacob Zuma, the president who came to power posing as a lawyer for the poor, that allowed them to infiltrate institutions to seize state resources. Last year, Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for refusing to testify before investigators. After two months in jail, he was released for medical reasons.

Ajay Gupta, right, and his brother Atul, during an interview in Johannesburg in 2011.
Ajay Gupta, right, and his brother Atul, during an interview in Johannesburg in 2011.Business Day/Martin Rhodes (Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The Guptas managed to obtain South African citizenship, but in January 2018, shortly after the launch of the Zondo Commission, a judicial commission to investigate the corruption plot of which they are considered architects, they fled to the Emirates. After three years of investigations, the Zondo Commission concluded that they had infiltrated the state structures to such an extent that they even participated in the management of their affairs, proposing names for some ministries.

Witnesses questioned during the investigation have also provided evidence of how the Guptas influenced other appointments, such as those of heads of important state agencies, by asserting Zuma’s influence. The aim was to ensure that their companies benefited from public contracts. According to stated researcher Paul Holdenthese brothers allegedly received over R49 billion (almost 3,000 million euros or 3,200 million dollars), in rigged contracts through different companies. The use of state resources for the benefit of the Guptas and his supposed godfather in power, the then president, was such that South Africans know this corrupt plot as the “Capture of the State”. His relationship with the former president and his family is so well known that in South Africa they are contemptuously called “the Zupta”, combining the initial of Zuma and the surname of the business brothers.

Specifically, the Commission relates the Guptas to the payment of a contract of 25 million rands (1.5 million euros or 1.63 million dollars), from the public treasury to the company Nulane Investments to carry out a study of agricultural viability in the province of the Free State. This money went to a company he owned, Islandsite Investments.

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Since their escape, the Guptas have remained in Dubai, where they have properties and businesses, and were arrested there on Monday after Interpol issued a red alert for search and seizure. These types of notices allow law enforcement to arrest a wanted person for prosecution or to serve a sentence, and detain them pending extradition.

The arrest of the two fugitives is the result of South Africa and the Emirates will ratify an extradition agreement in June 2021, which the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa hoped would lead to the Guptas returning to face the charges against them. “The arrest reflects the continuous efforts of the United Arab Emirates in the fight against money laundering crimes through local cooperation between the competent authorities”, has declared Dubai police.

It is still unknown when the Guptas will be extradited, something that the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance, has already demanded: “We await more information about the arrests and the process that will follow after them. It is absolutely important that there is transparency in this matter”, they have requested in a statement.

The crimes investigated by the Zondo Commission are not, by far, the only problems with the Justice of former President Zuma. In 2018, the South African High Court reinstated corruption charges that had been dropped in 2009, related to a $5 billion arms and bribery deal in the 1990s. The 80-year-old former president was sentenced to 15 months in prison in July 2021 for contempt, refusing to testify on these charges on three occasions, but two months after entering prison he was allowed to serve the rest of the sentence under house arrest for health reasons.

In this arms trafficking plot alone, Zuma faces 16 charges: 12 for fraud, two for corruption, one for money laundering and one for illicit association. He allegedly accepted up to 783 illegal payments. In May 2021 he pleaded not guilty to all of them.

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