The mastermind in a multi-million rand perlemoen enterprise Morne Blignaut was sentenced to an effective 20 years behind bars in the Eastern Cape High Court (Port Elizabeth) yesterday. IoL reports that Blignaut pleaded guilty and was convicted on two charges of racketeering and a charge of contravening the Marine Living Resources Act.

He had initially pleaded not guilty to the charges but did an about turn after it became apparent that the state had overwhelming evidence against him.

Judge Dayalin Chetty said Blignaut's guilty plea unveiled him as the mastermind behind the crimes. Chetty dismissed Blignaut's guilty plea as an indication of genuine remorse adding that if he was truly remorseful he would have, prior to the separation of his trial from that of his then co-accused, taken full responsibility for his role.

Chetty found that Blignaut's role in a 'transnational criminal syndicate' was integral to its success and, given the duration of the activity on the Oliphants Kop farm, it must have yielded handsome financial rewards. 'The scale of the enterprise's activities extended far beyond provincial boundaries and establishes the reach of its organisational tentacles.

It is not an issue that a substantial amount of the abalone found originated from the Western Cape, no doubt because of the plunder and depletion of the resources along the Eastern Cape coastline.' Chetty said Blignaut's previous conviction for possession of an excessive amount of abalone could not be ignored, adding that it pointed towards a tendency for repeat offences.

Meanwhile, Advocate Warren Myburgh from the NPA's Asset Forfeiture Unit brought an application for a confiscation inquiry to the tune of R67m. The inquiry is to ascertain if Blignaut financially benefited from money obtained through illegal activities, the IoL report notes.

The inquiry was postponed until 7 December when the matter will be argued.

Blignaut, a well-known businessman and former night club owner, was one of six people arrested after their perlemoen processing establishment on Oliphants Kop farm was raided by police. His co-accused, ex-wife Marshelle Blignaut, Jacob Naumann, Frederick Nance, Petrus Smith and Willie Smith, last month pleaded guilty to a string of charges, the most serious of which was racketeering and the illegal trade of abalone.

All five had turned their back on Blignaut and were to testify against him. They are expected to be sentenced today.

In addition, three men, Huang Zhenyong, Pan Kekun and Brett Killian were sentenced in 2015 for their involvement in the ring. Zhenyong and Kekun were sentenced to three years behind bars while Killian turned state witness and received correctional supervision and a one year suspended sentence, wholly suspended for a year.

During the investigation, a total of 37 356 units of abalone in different stages of processing, were confiscated. The weight of the abalone was in excess of six tons and the value was estimated at R5 258 300.

Full IoL report