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Cyanide scandal: Police drag their feet



THE 40 tonnes and 1.1 tonne pallet of cyanide secretely and illegally stored at a warehouse in Bulawayo remain there as compromised police, Environmental Management Agency (Ema) and government officials fail to take serious action against shady Chinese businesswoman Li Song behind the brazen criminality. 

This has badly exposed Zimbabwe’s law enforcement agents and regulatory bodies as captured by the Chinese dealer who has penetrated the whole system, and now appears to be above the law.

A well-placed source in Bulawayo said:  “The police, Ema and government officials are failing to intervene, hence the dangerous cyanide chemical remains illegally stored at the warehouse facility which is not even designed for that purpose. This issue was reported to the police and relevant authorities more than a month ago, but they haven’t taken any serious action against those involved,” a source said.

“This is really shocking, but telling. How can police, Ema and government officials be scared of one Chinese woman? Are her political, diplomatic, state security, business and underworld networks so powerful that they can override the system? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark [something is wrong].”

Authorities are facing serious accusations of protecting Li who has with a vast network of high-level connections penetrating political, diplomatic, state security services and business circles over an illegal purchase of cyanide to cover up tracks on charges of externalisation of foreign currency, as well as wildlife poaching activities.

Documents seen by The NewsHawks say police, Ema and government officials are protecting Li (52), who bought and stored about 40 tonnes of cyanide illegally at different places in a bid to use it in court to obstruct the course of justice or defeat the ends of justice by producing it as evidence of a product imported using money she unlawfully sent offshore to China. 

Part of the cyanide was given to her friend Wayne Jardine, a Bulawayo-based businessman and professional hunter. It is feared that cyanide was used for poaching of wildlife. Cyanide — a deadly fast-acting chemical — has been used by criminal syndicates to poison Zimbabwe’s wildlife amid poaching and killing of animals for their money-spinning body parts. Documents show that former Posryn Properties (Pvt) Ltd director Marida Maria Magdalena Van Der Spuy, a South African national, had secretly ordered the illegal storage of the cyanide unbeknownst to her co-directors in criminal contravention of health and safety laws on behalf of Li. 

The cyanide was stored at 105 Plumtree Road, Bualwayo, owned by Posryn Properties. Documents say it was bought from Curechem Overseas (Pvt) Ltd located on 1 Williams Way, Msasa, Harare and then transported to its Bulawayo branch whose address is 28 Josiah Chinamano Street, after it was shipped to Queens Mine in Bubi district, on the orders of Li, but rejected by Francesco Marconati, her estranged husband, who is also a co-owner and director of the mine holding company. Curechem is a leading supplier of chemicals with a head office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and offices in sub-Saharan Africa — Zambia, Tanzania, India, Mozambique, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

“This cyanide issue is a big scandal. Song is facing fraud and externalisation of foreign currency charges. She was reported to police by her ex-husband Marconati who was a co-director with her at Eagle Italian Shoes,” a source told The NewsHawks last week. 

“The company supplies the Zimbabwe National Army, Zimbabwe Prison Service and Zimbabwe Republic Police, among other state institutions, with leather shoes, helmets and baton sticks. As a result, Li has connections with the Office of the President and Cabinet, government ministers and senior officials, state security structures and diplomats. She also has connections in business and that makes her a powerful person, although she operates in the shadows and the underworld. It is rare to even see her photos as she does not want to be photographed by anyone. I doubt that even Marconati has her pictures.”

After their divorce and fallout as directors in their various companies, Marconati filed charges of fraud, perjury and externalisation of forex against Li, triggered by a dispute between the directors in 2020. In October 2021, Marconati wrote a letter of complaint addressed to Police Commissioner-General Godwin Matanga and copied to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc), saying police assistant commissioner Jealous Nyabasa and his subordinates were protecting Li. Even in this cyanide scandal, Nyabasa’s name has cropped up.

Investigating officers in Bulawayo and their bosses in Harare, including Nyabasa, are baulking at acting against Li after police reports have been filed against her and there are numerous witnesses. Ema has also been prevaricating. It was pressured to issue a seizure order on the cyanide, but still allowed Li to get away with a slap on the wrist, mild reprimand and a small fine of about US$1 000.

However, Ema is under pressure and scrutiny by some well-connected private investigators who want it to act with tough measures. Li and her colleagues are said to have told complainants that nothing will happen to her.

It is said secret manoeuvres are now being made to get the National Prosecuting Authority to drop charges against her as the cyanide scam has been exposed, making it difficult to produce the chemical as evidence of a product imported to justify externalisation of foreign currency.

Investigations have shown that contrary to Li’s claims that she has imported the cyanide for the Queens Mine, a gold mine located outside Bulawayo in Bubi district, Matabeleland North region, that she co-owns with Marconati – who rejected the product when she tried to get the holding company to store it for her – it was bought in Harare and transported for storage in Bulawayo.

The cyanide would have been used in court as evidence of an imported consignment to prove that she had not externalised funds, but paid for the “imported” chemical cargo offshore. The cyanide was initially warehoused at Curechem Bulawayo after it was rejected by Marconati as a director of Queens

Mine. However, documents show that Curechem Bulawayo wrote to Li and her team in September last year, saying it was unable to store “more of stocks which the Queens Mine rejected”.

“We need to know where we should put the product,” one email written by Curechem to Li says.

Investigations show that the cyanide was bought from Curechem Harare last year in June and immediately transported to Bulawayo. It was then sent to Queens Mine where it was rejected by Marconati. From there it went to Curechem Bulawayo and then sent to 105 Plumtree Road, Bulawayo, a property owned by Posryn Properties.

Documents say Van Der Spuy, who had been terminated for cause by Posryn on 9 January 2024, instructed the workers at Posryn, which she managed, to use the company’s warehouses to store the cyanide illegally, with Jardine’s collaboration. The cyanide was discovered on 12 January 2024 after a routine inspection by the other two Posryn directors, according to a police report that was made on 19 January 2024.

The directors immediately reported the illegal find to the police and Ema. However, police and Ema are prevaricating instead of taking decisive action. Despite issuing a seizure order, Ema is also now flinching again. Zimbabwe is a signatory to an international treaty on the use and handling of cyanide.

According to Zimbabwe’s Hazardous Substances Act, cyanide can only be sold to qualified customers in the mining and chemical industries by expert chemical distributors. Most of these customers are gold miners who need to possess Ema licences permitting them to transport, store hold and use cyanide.

Qualified chemical distributors must obtain a licence from the Mining and Mineral Development Department first. Song is not following the laws that govern the purchase, transportation and storage of cyanide, documents say.

On 12 January the directors of Posryn Properties, where the cyanide was illegally and covertly stored, discovered the product at their premises, 105 Plumtree Road, Bulawayo, and immediately reported the discovery to the authorities. They investigated the issue and discovered that it was Van Der Spuy, a wayward director of Posryn Properties until termination of her contract on 9 January 2024, who ordered workers to hide the cyanide at the premises, one document says.

Investigations show that Van Der Spuy ordered her subordinates, innocent Posryn workers, to allow for the storage of cyanide with the assistance of Jardine who took a “1.1 tonne pallet and stored them secretly away at another small storeroom.”

Sources involved in the investigation say the problem is three-fold: That cyanide is illegally transported and stored, some of it was removed and possibly used for poaching, and police and Ema authorities are reluctant to act against Li due to her high-level political, diplomatic, security and business links. A lot of animals in Zimbabwe are killed for their parts, for instance elephants for their tusks, rhinoceros for their horns and crocodiles for their skins. The parts are money-spinning in local and international markets, particularly Asia. Wildlife crime is big business.

Run by dangerous local and international networks, animal parts are trafficked much like illegal drugs and arms. As the use of cyanide becomes more prevalent in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector worldwide, miners, government regulators and other stakeholders need to urgently ensure safer cyanide use and management.

A growing body of evidence suggests that cyanidation is spreading from industrial gold mining to smaller mining operations, and now poaching. In the past decade, poisoning of wildlife waterholes in Zimbabwe has been rife. In 2013, more than 300 elephants died in the Hwange

National Park as a result of poachers lacing the park’s watering holes and salt licks with cyanide poison. After that, Zimbabwean rangers in 2015 found bodies of 22 more elephants that were poisoned with cyanide. The grim discovery brought to 62 the number of elephants poisoned by poachers around Hwange. In 2016, five elephants were poisoned cyanide. Six elephants were found dead recently. This trend was repeated throughout the decade and still persists at the moment.

Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson Tinashe Farawo confirmed the incident of the killings of six elephants to The NewsHawks, indicating suspects have been arrested and would appear in court soon.

“We have an incident where six elephants were found dead in the Lupane area. Some suspects have been arrested and will be appearing in court soon,” he said.

A Posryn Properties spokesperson said last week it had reported the matter to the police and the company is willing to help with investigations. However, the police are not acting. Sources say they are protecting Li and other offenders. The Bulawayo-based investigating officer, only identified as Detective Chief Inspector Dube, did not wish to comment.

Jardine admitted to unlawfully storing cyanide at the warehouse, while Van Der Spuy said receiving and storing cyanide illegally was “a problem”.

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