JOHANNESBURG – JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A judge sentenced South Africa's former national police chief to 15 years in prison on corruption charges Tuesday, saying he was an embarrassment to the crime-plagued country and the police officers who had served under him.
Jackie Selebi, 60, was convicted in July after a nation beset by violent crime heard months of testimony about its top cop going on designer shopping sprees with a convicted drug smuggler.
The case against Selebi, a one-time president of Interpol, has been a chief exhibit in a national debate over whether corruption and political meddling are undermining South Africa's fight against crime. On Tuesday, Judge Meyer Joffe called Selebi "an embarrassment to all right-thinking citizens in this country."
The judge cited a past speech by Selebi on law enforcement in which he said that police would stop corruption "so we can fight crime with clean hands."
"It is inconceivable that in a court the chief of police would be found to be an unreliable witness," Joffe said, adding that Selebi was "a stranger to the truth."
During sentencing broadcast live on nationwide television, Selebi showed no emotion. The court freed Selebi on bail Tuesday to file an appeal, and his lawyers said they would do so.
Selebi, once an important official in the governing African National Congress party, had pleaded innocent. He claimed evidence was fabricated for the charge he accepted money and gifts in exchange for meeting a drug smuggler's business associates and tipping him off to investigations into his crimes.
Selebi argued he was targeted by enemies who wanted to punish him for his criticism of an elite crime-fighting unit. The unit was disbanded in 2008 after it tried to prosecute Jacob Zuma on corruption charges before he went on to become South Africa's president.
The judge, in delivering the verdict last month, said Selebi's conspiracy theory had no basis.
Suleman Selebi, brother of the former police chief, insisted Tuesday Selebi was a "scapegoat" in a conspiracy to protect corrupt officials throughout the country.
"We expected this, Jackie is now the devil with horns, but this is not the end," Suleman Selebi told reporters at the courthouse.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance party described Selebi's trial as one of the most controversial in South African history after "obstacles" were set to block investigations and protect Selebi.
"We as a country are almost completely unfamiliar with the idea of a corrupt official, connected to the ANC, actually going to prison," it said in a statement.
The Afriforum advocacy group said Selebi, the head of police from 2000 to 2008, was only brought to justice by the now disbanded Scorpions elite unit.
"Selebi would probably not have been prosecuted if the investigation had been left to a unit that fell directly under his command," said Nantes Kelder, head of the group's community safety office.
Opposition politician Bantu Holomisa said the nation had become accustomed to impunity enjoyed by top officials.
"We hope this sends a message that will echo in the halls of power that the culture of impunity that pervades government will not be tolerated," Holomisa said.
Mthunzi Mhaga, a spokesman for state prosecutors, said the jail term was "an indictment for other members of the police force to fight any temptation to engage in corruption."
Golden Miles Bhudu of the South African Prisoner's Organization for Human Rights said many corruption cases went unreported and "unnoticed" in South Africa. Selebi should have learned from his links with organized crime "that making business with the mob is suicidal."
Selebi was a former school teacher who in his youth was twice detained without trial for his anti-apartheid activism. He went into exile in Tanzania and later the Soviet Union, where he underwent military training. After apartheid ended in 1994, he was a member of the first all-race parliament, and later served as the envoy to the U.N. in Geneva.
Associated Press Writer Eric Naki contributed to this report.