Shrien Dewani on the first day of his trial at the Western Cape High Court. Photo: Getty
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Shrien Dewani is on trial for murder, not for his sexuality

The young British businessman is accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in Cape Town’s township badlands.

High on the wall of the South African courtroom in which a British man is being tried for the murder of his wife hangs a relic of a previous era.

An ornately carved wooden crest, with a unicorn and a lion rampant, and beneath it that curious motto of the British establishment: “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense” (roughly translated from Old French as “shame on those who think ill of it”).

That Britain’s royal coat of arms is still displayed in courtroom two of Cape Town’s High Court is most likely due to the debt of honour South Africa’s legal system owes its English progenitor.

But crest’s old-fashioned imprecation to trust in the righteousness of those who act on our behalf is one that, to my mind, could be as hopelessly out of date as the colonial attitudes which once subjugated this beautiful country.

For the past two weeks I have reported for various British media outlets on the opening skirmishes in the murder trial of Shrien Dewani.

Dewani, as some readers are likely aware, is the young British businessman accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in the township badlands which fringe this stunning city by the sea.

To my mind, the most significant evidence we’ve heard in Dewani’s trial so far has been the witness testimony of a local gangster who – in return for a discount off his prison sentence and, perhaps, the prospect of more to come – claimed that Anni’s murder was her husband’s idea.

But beyond this there is one theme, above all others, that has dominated both court proceedings and the media’s coverage of it: Shrien Dewani’s sexuality.

Briefly, Shrien Dewani is bisexual.

“I have had sexual interactions with both males and females”, a statement read into court on Dewani’s behalf declared on the trial’s first day.

“I consider myself to be bisexual. My sexual interactions with males were mostly physical experiences or email chats with people I met online or in clubs; including prostitutes [...]

“My sexual experiences with females were usually during the course of a relationship which consisted of other activities and emotional attachment.”

Dewani’s admission prompted lurid headlines, both in South Africa and elsewhere.

The confession was interpreted by legal experts as a clever move designed to take the wind out of the prosecution’s sails by conceding as true that which they might claim Dewani denies – and also by challenging the court to disagree with the proposition that a person’s sexuality should have no bearing on his or her guilt.

But if Shrien Dewani had hoped sexuality might disappear as a theme in this trial, he will have been sorely disappointed.

On Monday this week, the trial heard from Simon Johnson, a perky young British man from the gay dating website Gaydar – a website, Johnson claimed in court, for which “privacy is of the utmost importance”.

The court didn’t hear whether Johnson had been compelled to give witness evidence or whether he volunteered to do so, but what he told the court might seem at odds with this claim to privacy.

Shrien Dewani, Johnson explained, had been a member of Gaydar for six years at the time of Anni’s death. His online nickname was “Asiansubguy”. He described himself as “a single gay man” and “passive sub guy” who was looking for a “dominant active guy”.

The court heard more detail about Dewani’s sexual predilections, much of it likely to be extremely embarrassing to him. But that, I think, is enough for now.

What on earth, I wondered as listened to Johnson’s patter, has any of this got to do with murder?

The Gaydar man had an answer. He confirmed that, according to the website’s records, Shrien Dewani logged into the site once on the day before Anni’s death and three times two days afterwards.

Okay. But what did he do online?

Unfortunately, that Johnson couldn’t say. This information was not retrievable from the site’s servers, he explained. But it was possible, he conceded under cross examination, that Shrien Dewani may simply have used Gaydar to send or receive innocuous emails.

Things got worse on Tuesday.

Mark Roberts, from Britain’s National Crime Agency, appeared in the witness dock to explain how he had, at the South African police’s request, searched a laptop computer once used by Shrien Dewani.

The computer’s large disc size meant Roberts hadn’t been able to sift through all the data it contained, so the IT expert used keywords to filter his search.

Roberts searched for the names of various people, places and websites which he thought might yield incriminating information.

He also searched for the words “gay, fetish, rubber and water sports”, he explained in court.

Just as I was wondering what forensic point Roberts and his South African taskmasters hoped to achieve using these search terms, prosecutor Adrian Mopp moved on to what was clearly meant as the meat of Roberts’ witness evidence: a cache of 53 sexually charged emails sent to Shrien Dewani from an unidentified “an older man” over a year before Anni’s murder.

There was a moment of breathless anticipation on the court’s press benches as we waited for these emails to be read into the court record.

But before they could be, Dewani’s barrister Francois van Zyl was on his feet, complaining that they were irrelevant to the case against his client.

Yes, they may be from one man to another man, van Zyl argued, but so what?

“Mr Dewani communicated with a third party about the situation in which he found himself”, prosecutor Adrian Mopp countered.

“He was confused about whether to get married or whether to come out....the man expressed a conflict within himself”.

“And what does that prove, motive to kill?” a clearly doubtful Judge Jeanette Traverso fired back. “I am sure that’s true for many, many people, including people in this court”.

The judge’s putdown was brutal, but Mopp wasn’t finished.

It wasn’t the fact that Shrien Dewani was gay that was important, the prosecution lawyer explained to the court, but that he had described himself, at different times, as being either gay, bisexual and straight. Which one was true?

Then came the kicker: a succinct explanation of the binary way in which Dewani’s prosecution appeared to me to understand the complex realities of human sexuality.

“A bisexual person is attracted to both sexes”, Mopp informed the court. “A gay person is attracted to one”.

Judge Traverso rejected the prosecution’s attempts to introduce the email evidence, ruling that the messages were of no relevance.

Having flown half way across the world to give his evidence, Roberts, the IT expert, was sent back home to the UK.

But the issue of Dewani’s sexuality is still unlikely to disappear from this trial. The court is expected, in the coming weeks, to hear from “The German Master”, a male prostitute Dewani has admitted paying for sex.

As for the relevance of what the Master has to say, that we shall have to see.

Shrien Dewani’s murder trial is still in its early stages and has yet to hear some of the most important evidence against him. He could be convicted of his wife’s murder, in which case concerns about his private life will, most likely, be the least of his worries.

But Shrien Dewani could be found innocent. If that happens he may have good reason to be angry, not just at the police and prosecution service that would have falsely accused him of a crime he didn’t commit, but for the needless airing of the most intimate details about his private life – secrets he will never now be able to hide.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem