CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Even in this crime-plagued country it stood out as tragic: A honeymooning couple from abroad is carjacked and the wife’s body is found in their abandoned taxi the next morning. But now the taxi driver says the husband hired him to kill her.
By accepting the confession in a plea bargain Tuesday, South African authorities gave credence to the driver’s story, but would not immediately confirm the husband was being sought.
Shrien Dewani, 31, denied involvement in his Swedish wife’s murder through a spokesman Tuesday. He retained the celebrity publicist after his return to Britain and when allegations surfaced about him following 28-year-old Anni Dewani’s death.
“Coming from a taxi driver who admitted to playing a part in murdering his wife, I think it should be treated with the contempt it deserves,” Max Clifford told Sky News. “Let’s see what evidence there is to back up these accusations. They have said he (Shrien Dewani) is not a suspect. That is the only true communications that have come out from the official bodies.”
Clifford said authorities have not contacted his client. The couple had married in India two weeks before arriving in South Africa last month. Photographs from their traditional wedding show them smiling in jewels and richly embroidered robes.
Mthunzi Mhaga, spokesman for South Africa’s national prosecuting office, said Tuesday that a bid to request Shrien Dewani’s extradition is “a matter that is likely to be considered” as part of continuing investigations.
“Based on what happened in court today, obviously the investigations are going to intensify,” Mhaga said.
Anni Dewani’s father, Vinod Hindocha, attended Tuesday’s court hearing. As he left, his eyes wet with tears, he thanked South Africans who investigated the case, and people here and around the world who had offered his family support.
“We are very, very confident about the police investigation,” Hindocha added.
Taxi driver Zola Tongo said he took the couple from the airport to their hotel on Nov. 13 when they arrived in Cape Town following a stay at Kruger, South Africa’s most famous game park. Once the wife was out of earshot, the driver said Shrien Dewani asked if he could find someone to kill her. Tongo said Shrien Dewani offered 15,000 rand each (about $2,100), but paid only 1,000 (about $145).
Once Tongo’s confession was read in court, a translator asked in Xhosa whether he understood. Tongo, who stood with his eyes lowered throughout the hearing in a courtroom packed with South African and foreign reporters, said he did – his only comments in court.
As a result of his plea bargain, Tongo was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was expected to testify against the other suspects, including two South Africans who were arrested soon after Anni Dewani’s body was discovered.
The women’s league of South Africa’s governing African National Congress party said Tongo’s 18-year sentence was too lenient “and undermines our nation’s commitment to ensure that all those who perpetuate violence against women are removed from our society.”
Tongo’s confession did not touch on a possible motive.
Shrien Dewani had told authorities the couple was returning to their hotel from dinner and had detoured to visit an impoverished township when gunmen forced him and the taxi driver from the vehicle. Neither Shrien Dewani nor the driver were hurt.
Anni Dewani’s body was found in the vehicle the next morning in another township. Among the questions raised about the case was why the attackers did not steal the vehicle.
National police chief Bheki Cele told reporters on Nov. 18 that Anni Dewani had been shot in the back of the neck. He said she had not been sexually assaulted.
The case has drawn wide attention in Britain and in South Africa, where violent crime is high but attacks on foreign tourists are rare. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners were here when South Africa hosted the World Cup, soccer’s premier event, earlier this year and no serious incidents were reported.
“Let us hope that the swift and efficient way in which this case has been dealt with, and the fact that it is now becoming clear that it was planned by a non-South African, will help to restore the country’s reputation to the levels we achieved during and after the World Cup,” the Congress of South African Trade Unions said in a statement Tuesday.
The South African case had echoes of a 2003 Australian death involving an American couple.
Gabe Watson, an accomplished diver from Alabama, was dubbed the “Honeymoon Killer” by the Australian media after his wife drowned during a 2003 scuba diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef. In 2008, Australian authorities found there was sufficient evidence to charge Watson with her death.
Officials argued he killed his wife by turning off her air supply and holding her underwater. Watson acknowledged in his plea in Australia that he committed a negligent act, failing to do enough to save his wife. But Watson denies deliberately trying to kill her.
He served an 18-month sentence in Australia after pleading guilty last year to manslaughter, but now faces murder charges that could carry a much stiffer punishment in the United States.