Naomi Campbell's legal team last night accepted that the supermodel may have broken the law when she received three unfinished diamonds as a gift from the alleged war criminal Charles Taylor.
Ms Campbell told a war crimes trial at The Hague on Thursday that she was given the gems following a party at Nelson Mandela's home in South Africa in 1997. She said she was awoken in the middle of the night and handed a pouch containing the stones by two men whom she "assumed" were sent on behalf of Mr Taylor, the former president of Liberia. But the model said she thought they were "dirty-looking pebbles" and, upon being told they were diamonds, gave them to a friend.
However, under South African law, even being in possession of uncut diamonds without authority is an illegal offence punishable by a fine or even a prison sentence.
Last night, Ms Campbell's solicitor appeared to accept that the model may have inadvertently broken the law simply by accepting the gift. Gideon Benaim, of the London firm Schillings, said: "In terms of having uncut diamonds we now know there is a statute in South African law which deals with uncut diamonds. But I would hope that the authorities in South Africa, after investigating, will not take action against her. Ms Campbell will of course cooperate fully if asked to do so."
He added: "She was given a gift many years ago. She did not ask for the gift and she did not know precisely what they were. She also only had them for a very short period of time."
The possibility that Ms Campbell may have broken the law came to light as the South African police announced that officers had seized the diamonds at the centre of the supermodel's testimony. Police spokesman Musa Zondi said: "They are now being handed over to the diamonds board for authentication and whatever happens after depends on a number of other things but there is an offence against possessing uncut diamonds." Tests will attempt to verify whether the stones were mined in regions patrolled by rebels Mr Taylor is alleged to have armed in exchange for the stones. If so, it will be a key part of the prosecution's attempt to convict Taylor of facilitating the deaths of over 100,000 civilians.
Yesterday Jeremy Ractliffe, the former head of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the man to whom Ms Campbell gave the diamonds after the dinner in 1997, admitted he has had the stones ever since. He said he would now co-operate with the Taylor war crimes trial if called as a witness.
He said: "Three small uncut diamonds were given to me by Naomi Campbell on the Blue Train on 26 September 1997. I took them because I thought it might well be illegal for her to take uncut diamonds out of the country.
"Naomi suggested they could be of some benefit to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund [NMCF] – but I told her I would not involve the NMCF in anything that could possibly be illegal.
"In the end I decided I should just keep them. A factor that influenced me not to report the matter to anyone was to protect the reputation of the NMCF, Mr Mandela himself and Naomi Campbell, none of whom were benefiting in any way. So I did not inform the NMCF or anyone else." Last night there were reports that police have opened a criminal investigation against Mr Ractliffe.
Mr Benaim said it was his hope that there would not be a charge brought against Mr Ractliffe. The solicitor added: "In terms of Mr Ractliffe, no one has benefited from his having the diamonds and nothing was done with them until they were recently handed to the police."
Mr Benaim's hope that the police will not take criminal action against Ms Campbell is likely to be realised according to one South African diamond law expert. Peter Leon, partner and mining specialist at South African law firm Webber Wentzel, said: "It is illegal in South Africa to possess uncut diamonds without a licence, but she would not have known that. The offence is not one of strict liability so she would need mens rea [a guilty mind]. The law has been around since the 19th century. It was intended to prevent people from dealing in rough diamonds. What Ms Campbell did was very different."Reuse content