Tuesday, December 21, 2010

S. Africa's Honeymoon Murder: Was Husband Dewani Involved?

Taken at their lavish wedding ceremony in Mumbai in October, the photograph captures newly wedded bliss and channels Bollywood glamour. Shrien Dewani, a multimillionaire businessman from Bristol, in western England, beams as Anni, his stunning Swedish bride of Indian descent, smiles and leans into him.

 But on Nov. 13 the fairy tale descended into a nightmare. While on honeymoon in South Africa, the couple were traveling through the outskirts of Cape Town when two gunmen hijacked their taxi. Within an hour, they released an unharmed Shrien onto the street, but it wasn't until the next morning when police found Anni, her bullet-ridden body discarded in a nearby shantytown. "She took three bullets to the chest," her grieving father told Sweden's Expressen newspaper soon after. "It's just terrible. She was the most beautiful girl in the world."

For Anni's heartbroken relatives, closure can't come soon enough. For nearly a month, reporters from Britain to Sweden to South Africa have followed the case closely, offering breathless commentary as they - and the police - pieced together the intricacies of the honeymoon horror story.

By Dec. 7, three men - the taxi driver, Robert Zola Tongo, and the two hijackers - had been charged with aggravated robbery, kidnapping and murder. Tongo's sentencing in a Cape Town court was meant to bring a degree of finality to the proceedings. Instead it has triggered an avalanche of questions and made Shrien Dewani, the widower who has stayed out of the public eye while he grieved at home, a prime suspect. (See the top 10 unsolved crimes.)

Those present in the courtroom on Tuesday let out audible gasps as South African state prosecutor Rodney DeKock told the judge that Dewani had allegedly offered Tongo 15,000 rand ($2,200) to arrange Anni's murder. "The alleged hijacking was in fact not a hijacking but part of a plan of subterfuge, which Shrien Dewani, the husband of the deceased, and the accused had designed to conceal the true facts," he said. After agreeing to a plea bargain, Tongo will serve 18 years, reduced from a likely 25-year sentence.

South African authorities contacted the London Metropolitan police on Tuesday to issue an extradition warrant for Dewani, who turned himself in to a Bristol police station shortly afterward. At a hearing in a London magistrate's court on Wednesday, Dewani refused to voluntarily return to South Africa, and the court granted him bail for £250,000 ($394,000).

But South African officials launched an immediate appeal, which means Dewani must remain in custody until a high court hearing, which has yet to be scheduled. Speaking to reporters outside of the court, a relative of Anni's (who didn't reveal his name) said he wanted Dewani to return to South Africa. "Justice for Anni is all we're looking for," he said. "I would say he needs to go." (See pictures of South Africa.)

Dewani and his family deny the taxi driver's claims. "Shrien is totally innocent of any involvement in this heinous crime," the family said in a statement. "These allegations are totally ludicrous and very hurtful to a young man who is grieving the loss of the woman he loved."

Mark Williams-Thomas, a former detective turned criminologist who is based in London, says he believes that Dewani's "rather strange behavior" early on in the case may be fueling the media's speculation of his involvement. He points out that Dewani left South Africa just four days after his wife's murder, avoided public comment, and hired Max Clifford - Britain's most sought-after spin doctor, who once represented O.J. Simpson. But Williams-Thomas warns that seemingly illogical behavior doesn't necessarily indicate guilt. "We often apply a commonsense approach to people's behavior after a crisis in their life," he says. "But that's often the wrong thing to do, because people don't behave normally after a crisis." (See a TIME cover story on O.J. Simpson.)

Vinod Hindocha, 61, Anni's father who lives in Sweden, has been attending the hearings in Cape Town. On Tuesday, he repeatedly broke down in the courtroom while clutching a photograph of his slain daughter and struggled to maintain his composure as he left the court.

"I'd like to say thank you to the South African people for their support and thank you to the whole world for the condolence messages to our family," he said. Unable to continue, he deferred to his brother Ashok. "Our wish to all the [people] involved is to please end this case as soon as possible," he said. "Because every day till this case ends is a torture for us."

As the mystery surrounding Anni's death deepens, that torture may be the only certainty left.

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