Four years after his wife was murdered on an extravagant South African honeymoon in a crime that plunged him into mental illness, Shrien Dewani walked free after a judge ruled that prosecutors had failed to build a case that he was behind the killing.
The millionaire care-home owner – who had apparently already packed his bags in anticipation of an acquittal by Judge Jeanette Traverso – gave a sigh of relief as he was told that the key evidence against him, from a group of men already convicted of the fatal shooting of Anni Dewani, was “riddled with contradictions” and there was no prospect of a conviction.
But as the 34-year-old businessman prepared to return to Britain, after a two-year fight against extradition for a two-month trial that collapsed before he could be asked to speak in his own defence, he did so into a headwind of recrimination and the deep sorrow and frustration of his dead wife’s family, who said they were now considering a civil case against him.
There had been screams and shouts in the Western Cape High Court as Mr Dewani was declared not guilty. Speaking on the steps outside, Anni’s sister Ami Denborg said her family would be “haunted” by the decision to acquit the man who had been accused of arranging the 28-year-old’s murder.
Visibly fighting her emotions, she said: “We came here looking for answers and the truth and all we got was more questions. We waited patiently for four years to hear what really happened to Anni… All we wanted was to hear all the events and the hope of actually finding that out has kept us, as a family, going. Unfortunately we believe that right has now been taken away from us.”
Chief among those unanswered questions for the family was the matter which South African prosecutors had expected would play a vital part in their case that Mr Dewani had wanted out of his marriage and was prepared to solicit murder on his honeymoon to do so: his sexuality.
The businessman’s lawyers had acknowledged on the opening day of his trial in Cape Town his bisexuality and predilection for sex with men including a German gay escort. But it was a secret he had kept hidden from his wife and others until after he was bundled from a hijacked taxi in the township of Gugulethu on 13 November 2010 and Anni driven off to her death.
Amid lewd revelations about the defendant’s sex life, prosecutors alleged he had been motivated by an inability to come to terms with his sexuality and resolved to murder his wife. It was an explanation he denied, insisting he had been in love with Anni.
In a blow from which the prosecution case did not recover, Judge Traverso ruled that evidence of the sexual duplicity of Mr Dewani was “irrelevant”. But the Hindocha family said they were still left grappling with the reasons for his betrayal.
Anni’s uncle, Ashok Hindocha, said the family would be consulting their lawyers to see whether a lawsuit for civil damages could be filed against Mr Dewani in the UK.
“We would have preferred to have known about his sexuality before he married our precious Anni,” he said. “She gave herself to him, mind, body and soul and she hoped to have been cherished and loved. But she would not have married him if she had known about his secret sex life with male prostitutes.”
Mr Dewani, from Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, had betrayed little emotion throughout the trial. He bolted from the dock to freedom through the court’s holding cells as members of his family in the courtroom embraced. He later left through a side entrance without offering any comment.
Honeymoon crime: Shrien and Anni Dewani
Honeymoon crime: Shrien and Anni Dewani
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Shrien Dewani and wife Anni on their wedding day
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The couple pictured together
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Mrs Dewani is believed to have been shot three times
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Xolile Mngeni was sentenced to life after being convicted for the murder of Mrs Dewani in November 2012
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Mngeni, convicted of killing Anni Dewani, had a brain tumour and died in prison in October
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Mr Dewani, who has consistently maintained his innocence, broke down in tears as graphic footage and images of his wife's dead body were shown in a South African court
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Vinod Hindocha, left, the father of murdered Mrs Dewani, has said he was not aware of his son-in-law's sexuality prior to his daughter's marriage to the British businessman
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Here, Mr Hindocha, breaks down at a news conference on the eve of the murder trial's start
The acquittal, after an application for the trial to be terminated by defence lawyers at the end of the prosecution case, was the culmination of a tortuous legal saga. It had seen the couple’s relationship put under a microscope and Mr Dewani diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a ruling that took three hours to read out, Judge Traverso said it was failings in the testimony of three men convicted of the killing – chief among them the cab driver Zola Tongo – that were the principal reason for the collapse of the prosecution.
The court heard that Tongo, who struck a plea bargain with prosecutors to give evidence against Mr Dewani, was the sole witness able to corroborate the prosecution case that the Briton had been so desperate to rid himself of his wife – after their £200,000 wedding in Mumbai – that he entered into a conspiracy with the taxi driver to have her murdered in a botched car-jacking during their journey from the airport for 15,000 rand (£830).
Judge Traverso said that Tongo’s claims had ended up “making no sense”, were contradictory and inconsistent in places with the version of events put forward by the two men responsible for the car-jacking, Mziwamadoda Qwabe, and the man ultimately responsible for shooting Anni, Xolile Mngeni. Qwabe is serving 25 years for murder while Mngeni died in prison from a brain tumour.
The court heard that Monde Mbolombo, a hotel porter who was the “link man” in the now disproven conspiracy, had told lies in court to lessen his role in the murder and should no longer benefit from the immunity from prosecution granted to him by prosecutors.
Judge Traverso said the reality was that Tongo, Qwabe and Mngeni were “intelligent men” and the idea that they would commit murder for less than £1,000 between them – money which Mr Dewani insisted had been for a surprise helicopter trip for his wife – had not rung true.
The judge said that the evidence of the three men was “so improbable, with so many mistakes, lies and inconsistencies you cannot see where the lies ended and the truth begins”. She added that the prosecution case had fallen “far below the threshold” of what a reasonable court could convict on.
Prosecutors denied that the case had collapsed because of a “shoddy police investigation”. But they added there would be no appeal against the acquittal.
For the Hindocha family, it seemed there was no such luxury of closure.
‘The justice system has failed us’: Anni Dewani family’s statement
Speaking after the case was dismissed, Mrs Dewani’s sister, Ami Denborg, said: “Today we feel as a family that the justice system has failed us and we are deeply disappointed. We came here looking for answers and we came here looking for the truth and all we got was more questions.
“We waited patiently for four years to hear what really happened to Anni and to hear the full story of what happened to our dearest little sister.
“All we wanted was to hear all the events and the hope of actually finding that out has kept us, as a family, going.
“Unfortunately we believe that this right has now been taken away from us. Today we feel really, really sad, because we never heard the full story of Shrien. We heard that Shrien has led a double life and that Anni knew nothing about it. And we just wish that Shrien had been honest with us and especially with Anni.
“The knowledge of not ever knowing what happened to my dearest little sister on the 13th of November 2010...that’s going to haunt me, my family, my brother, my parents, for the rest of our lives.
“We’ve had four years of sleepless nights and... will we ever be able to sleep?
“We’ve had tremendous support from the South African public, and many others around the world, and we’re grateful to all of them and thank them from the bottom of our heart.
“This is a really sad day for us and we hope that no other family will ever have to go through what we have been through.”
Ms Denborg said the family will be making no further comments and asked for “time and space for reflection”.Reuse content