Isis affiliated suspects

Islamic State flag waving on the wind – Photo: Flickr

‘Isis-affiliates’ suspected of 2018 British botanists’ killing get 2021 trial date

Three alleged Isis loyalists who are suspected of killing British botanists Rod and Rachel Saunders in 2018 will go to trial in next year.

Isis affiliated suspects

Islamic State flag waving on the wind – Photo: Flickr

Nearly two years after elderly British-born botanists Rod and Rachel Saunders were murdered while in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) searching for rare plants and seeds, the three people accused of the killings, as well as being believed to be Isis affiliates, have finally been given a 2021 trial date after a plethora of delays. 

The accused, Sayfudeen Aslam Del Vecchio‚ his wife Fatima Patel, and Ahmad Mussa appeared at the Durban High Court on Monday 24 August and a trial date was set down for 18 January and 18 February 2021.

‘Isis loyalist’ accused of killing prominent botanists in 2018

The curious case surrounds the disappearance of the Saunders’, a married couple well-regarded as prominent botanists who lived in Cape Town for over 30 years.

They were last seen on 10 February 2018 near Bivane Dam on the outskirts of Vryheid in KZN, but never returned t continue their tour of the country in search of rare plants. Their absence sparked a massive search operation that spanned a week, concluding after the body of Rod Saunders was found on the Tugela River banks and identified using DNA profiling.

The trio of suspects, who were swiftly apprehended following an intelligence driven police operation, are alleged to have drained the Saunders’ bank accounts and then murdered them before disposing of their bodies in a crocodile-infested river.

They are all accused of murder and kidnapping, as well as charges of theft and counts relating to the contravention of the Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities Act.

Court delays result from escape plot and COVID-19 disruptions  

Assigning a trial date for the suspects – who are believed to be Isis loyalists due to links with the organisation established during the investigation into the murder of the Saunders – has been a less timeous process though. 

All three were initially remanded at Westville Prison in Durban, but Del Vecchio and Mussa were later transferred to Ebongweni maximum security prison in Kokstad following the remarkable discovery of a plot to escape the facility. 

Del Vecchio was found in possession of documentation and sketches that were identified as schematics for the prison and surrounding area of the Verulam Family Court, with investigating officers confirming that the plot to break out was legitimate. 

“Intelligence indicates that there will be a considerable amount of violence and threats to make good of their escape attempt,” said officer Adriaan van Jaarsveld in an affidavit delivered to the court when the trio were previously on the stand in August 2019.

“The use of force by firearms and other related objects during the escape attempt will definitely cause serious harm, injury or fatalities to the public, police and court officials. The plan was to use to use human beings as shields and hostages in the attack,” he said in the affidavit. 

The migration of the suspects between prisons – as well as the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of South Africa’s court schedule – has meant that the case has faced continuous postponements. 

Isis linked suspects allegedly affiliated with Durban mosque attack ‘mastermind’ 

Until their trial gets underway, the three suspects will remain remanded in custody. 

Their links to Isis emerged when they were found to be affiliated with Durban businessman Farhad Hoomer, who is the alleged mastermind behind the 2018 Verulam mosque attack and a series of firebomb attacks at retail outlets in the months that followed. 

Hoomer and his 11 co-accused were released from custody in June this year after the case against them was struck from the role due to Magistrate Irfaan Khalil citing “unreasonable delays” resulting from the matter having been on the court roll for almost two years.