Atul Gupta challenges South African asset freeze

JOHANNESBURG/CAPE TOWN, Feb 19 (Reuters) – Atul Gupta, one of three Gupta brothers being investigated for corrupt links to ousted South African president Jacob Zuma, is challenging a court order freezing 10 million rand ($859,025) in his bank account, according to court papers seen by Reuters.

South African prosecutors were authorised to freeze 220 million rand, including 10 million which they said was illegally transferred to Atul Gupta’s bank account, as part of an investigation into fraud at a state-backed dairy project in the Free State province.

The three Gupta brothers, accused by the public anti-graft watchdog of using their friendship with Zuma to influence policy and amass wealth, have denied any wrongdoing, as has Zuma.

In the court papers filed in a court in the Free State province, Atul Gupta denied having received 10 million rand as alleged by prosecutors and said he was “currently outside South Africa.” The affidavit attached to the court papers was signed on Feb. 8 at the South African consulate in Dubai.

A spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority confirmed the veracity of the court papers. A lawyer authorised to speak for Atul Gupta could not be reached for comment.

Police are searching for Ajay Gupta, Atul’s brother who has been declared a “fugitive from justice,” as part of their investigation into the dairy project.

However, the police aren’t looking for Ajay, a spokesman for the elite police unit, the Hawks, which targets organised crime and corruption, said on Friday. Johannesburg’s main airport said on Friday that Ajay Gupta had left South Africa for Dubai on Feb. 6. Last week, the Hawks raided several Gupta properties in Johannesburg as part of the investigation into the Vrede dairy. The project was meant to benefit the local community but prosecutors described it as a “scheme designed to defraud and to steal”.

Relations between the Guptas and Zuma, who resigned last week after being instructed to do so by the ruling African National Congress party, are the focus of a separate judicial inquiry into high-level state corruption.

A top judge will investigate whether the Guptas sought to influence the appointment of cabinet ministers and were unlawfully awarded state tenders.

South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has made fighting corruption a top priority.

$1 = 11.6411 rand Reporting by Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town, editing by James Macharia, Larry King

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