South African officials are fuming after learning on Thursday that a court in the United Arab Emirates denied their request to extradite the brothers Atul and Rajesh Gupta, businessmen accused of sweeping corruption, at a hearing seven weeks ago that the South African authorities say no one ever bothered to tell them about.
The Guptas had been fingered as linchpins of the widespread looting of state funds during the tenure of former President Jacob Zuma that has contributed to the country’s broken economy. An investigator estimated that the Guptas, who fled to the U.A.E. about five years ago, secured at least $3.2 billion worth of business through a vast network of corporations and government connections.
The Guptas have denied any wrongdoing and said that they are the victims of political infighting.
Ronald Lamola, South Africa’s justice minister, accused the United Arab Emirates on Friday of failing to uphold a treaty between the two countries. He said at a news conference that South African officials had been pressing their counterparts in the U.A.E. for updates on the case for several months.
But it was only on Thursday night that the U.A.E. sent official notice that a hearing had been held on Feb. 13 in Dubai and that the Gupta brothers were no longer in custody because extradition had been denied.
“We learned with shock and dismay that the extradition hearing had been concluded,” Mr. Lamola said.
The South African authorities say they will consider appealing. But with the whereabouts of the Guptas unknown, and with South Africa needing to rely on U.A.E. officials for the appeal, there are serious questions about whether two of the country’s most sought-after corruption suspects will ever be brought to justice.
In June, the government and many South Africans hailed the arrest of the Guptas in Dubai as a significant moment in their country’s painstaking reckoning with endemic corruption. An investigation that began more than a decade ago into Mr. Zuma’s spending led to accusations that the Guptas had enormous sway within the former president’s administration including influence in the appointment of government ministers.
South African officials said they do not know where the Guptas are now. One Justice Ministry official said the court judgment in Dubai made reference to the Guptas, who were born in India but had South African passports, being citizens of Vanuatu, a cluster of islands in the South Pacific Ocean.
“That was news to us,” said the official, Doctor Mashabane, the director general in the Justice Ministry.
Africa Intelligence, an online news site, reported over the past week that the Guptas had been spotted in Switzerland and that they had applied for asylum in the Central African Republic.
Michael Hellens, a lawyer for the Guptas, declined to comment on their whereabouts or the extradition case.
The court in Dubai found that the charge of money laundering that the Guptas faced occurred in both the U.A.E. and South Africa, and that extradition could be denied because it could be prosecuted in the U.A.E., Mr. Lamola said. The court also found that an arrest warrant related to fraud and corruption charges had been canceled, he said.
But the South African authorities dispute that reason for the denial. Shamila Batohi, the country’s chief prosecutor, said that South African prosecutors canceled the initial warrant and filed a new one that included the fraud and corruption charges, as well as additional charges, and that should have sufficed for the extradition.
“The fact that the court has now regarded this as a critical issue and one of the reasons for denying the application is something that is confusing and in our opinion does not make sense,” she said.
What makes the denial particularly egregious, Mr. Lamola said, is that South African officials had closely cooperated with the U.A.E. authorities, even going so far as to send prosecutors to the Emirates to ensure that the extradition application was in order. The U.A.E.’s legal authorities had confirmed that everything had been done properly, he said.
The U.A.E. state news agency said that three hearings had been held to determine if the brothers could be extradited. “At every step,” the news agency said, “U.A.E. judicial authorities briefed their South African counterparts on proceedings.”
The U.A.E. also said that South Africa did not attach the proper arrest warrants to its extradition application and that “the request did not meet the strict standards for legal documentation as outlined in the extradition agreement between” the countries, according to the news agency.
Even if there had been deficiencies in South Africa’s extradition application, Mr. Lamola argued that the United Nations Convention Against Corruption required the U.A.E. to allow South Africa to present relevant information before denying a request.
Any appeal would be complicated by the Guptas’ whereabouts. If they are no longer in the U.A.E., South Africa may have to negotiate with other countries to bring them into custody.
“It’s what the people in this country expect and want,” Ms. Batohi, the chief prosecutor, said. “We will leave no stone unturned in this process.”
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.