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S. African Lawmaker Arrested on Corruption Charges - 2001-10-03

Police in South Africa have arrested a senior ruling party lawmaker on corruption charges. Tony Yengeni was released on bail Wednesday after turning himself in to authorities. His arrest is linked to a controversial multi-billion-dollar arms deal.

Tony Yengeni is the chief whip in parliament for the ruling party, the African National Congress. He is being charged with corruption, fraud, perjury and forgery.

The charges against Mr. Yengeni stem from the deep discount he received on a luxury Mercedes Benz 4x4 vehicle. He bought the car from a company linked to the controversial $5 billion arms deal. Mr. Yengeni was chief of the parliamentary defense committee at the time.

Authorities have also issued an arrest warrant for an official with the company that supplied the car. Police say Michael Woerfel of the European Aeronautical Defense Space Company is currently out of the country.

The company has admitted providing cars to more than 30 influential people, in government and private industry, including the chief of the South African military.

Government officials, including Justice Minister Penuell Maduna, have denied that the arrest of Mr. Yengeni is directly linked to the weapons deal. They say the corruption inquiry is totally separate from a probe into the arms procurement process.

A spokesman for the elite Scorpions police unit, which conducted the Yengeni investigation, says there is no evidence so far that his car deal actually affected the outcome of the arms deal. Scorpions' spokesman, Sipho Ngwema, spoke to South African state radio.

"The evidence before us says there is no conclusive link between this particular exchange of this particular car with the whole arms deal," he said.

Mr. Ngwema says the investigation continues, and he did not rule out more arrests in connection to the case.

Mr. Yengeni has made no public statements since his arrest. Beforehand, he had vehemently denied that there was anything illegal or underhanded in the way he acquired the car.

Government officials and the ruling African National Congress have issued ambiguous statements about the arrest of the parliamentary leader. They say it is important to root out corruption, but they also say he is innocent until proven guilty.

Deputy President Jacob Zuma says neither the government nor the ANC will interfere with the case.

"I think the old golden principle operates here: When there are charges, the law must take its course, so that we see whether the person is guilty or not guilty," he said. "But of course as you know as well, another golden rule is that the person is always presumed innocent until proven guilty."

Opposition leaders and government critics have welcomed the arrest of Mr. Yengeni. They have urged him to step down from his influential position as ANC chief whip in parliament. It is not clear whether he will keep the position while the case is in court. The ruling party is expected to make that decision within the next few days.