June 18, 2020 / 1:42 PM / 21 days ago

Suspects accused of huge South African bank theft appear in court

Police officers are seen behind some of the eight people suspected of illegally siphoning 2.3 billion rand ($133.87 million) from small lender VBS Mutual Bank, during their appearance at the Palm Ridge Regional Court in Alberton, South Africa June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Seven suspects accused of taking 2.3 billion rand ($132.43 million) from VBS Mutual bank in 2018 said they would plead not guilty to 47 counts of fraud, theft, corruption and racketering when they appeared in a South African court on Thursday.

The National Prosecuting Authority has called it probably the biggest bank robbery in South Africa’s history.

An eighth suspect did not appear because he was under COVID-19 quarantine.

The suspects, all arrested on Wednesday, include former VBS executives, a former partner of KPMG South Africa - the firm which audited the bank and reported the partner to the police - an ex-police officer and a former state pension fund executive.

“All the accused acquired or maintained, directly or indirectly, an interest in or control of the enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activities,” read the charge sheet document in court.

“To hide the crime of theft, misrepresentations were made to the Registrar and/or shareholders.”

The court set bail at 100,000 rand.

VBS was a little known lender until it gained notoriety in 2016 for providing a 7.8 million rand ($660,000) loan to former president Jacob Zuma to reimburse the state for upgrades to his personal home including a swimming pool and amphitheatre.

The 2.3 billion rand that went missing from VBS included cash from sizeable short term deposits by municipalities, and some 50 people were thought to be involved in the swindle, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation said on Wednesday.

Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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