“My escape from hell”
Jacqueline Pienaar had a message this week for her criminal comrades in one of South Africa’s most audacious frauds: “I’ve been to hell and back. But these bastards learnt: don’t mess with me!”
This week marked 12 years from the wintery morning in 2000 when the 16-year-old Afrikaans schoolgirl from Johannesburg’s East Rand eyed an Asian man who came to look at a cottage in her parent’s backyard.
He introduced himself as Asad Abbas Naqvi, a businessman from Pakistan who was later to become her husband. What she didn’t know was that he was a crime boss who fled Pakistan because there was a ransom on his head.
A few months later, Jacqueline married Assad in front of a mullah in Fordsburg. She converted to Islam and adopted the name of Fiza Naqvi.
Her marriage, she said, was a way to escape what she claimed was an abusive father, but it was also the beginning of her road to riches and hell.
With her marriage to Asad Naqvi, Pienaar (she no longer uses her Muslim name) became a member of one of the biggest fraud syndicates that has ever operated in South Africa.
The Naqvi gang “hijacked” the identities of major companies including Sun Microsystems using insiders at the companies registration office and diverted tax refunds due to these companies to their own accounts.
In their scam they stole more than R50 million and almost got away with over R70 million in total. One estimate put the targeted figure as high as R144 million.
Pienaar, who is still in witness protection but who spoke to City Press this week, is now a convicted fraudster for her role in the criminal enterprise.
She was in charge of the syndicate’s safe and describes how at one time she counted out R10 million in cash.
She’s also a widow.
On the 6th of December 2008, Asad Naqvi was kidnapped and taken to Vosloorus where he was tortured, shot point-blank and stuffed in the boot of his BMW X5 and set alight.
Police believe he had double-crossed members of the syndicate.
But before Asad Naqvi’s murder the criminal business had flourished and by 2008 was booming.
An array of BMW’s was parked in Assad’s driveway of his five-bedroomed mansion in Sandton.
“There was money everywhere! I was in charge of the safe and there was R10 million in cash stashed in it. Most of it was sent to the family in Pakistan,” said Pienaar.
The money that didn’t land up with the family in Lahore was squandered on expensive cars, booze, prostitutes and gambling.
“I hated that life. It wasn’t normal and I wasn’t brought up like that. But I was trapped. They were watching me. And they were very dangerous, ” she said.
At the time of Asad Naqvi’s murder Pienaar was in Lahore, Pakistan, staying with the Naqvi family after the death of her husband’s father.
Unbeknown to the remaining syndicate members in South Africa, SARS and then Scorpions (now the Hawks) were on to them.
By then, they had identified Assad and his brother, Alizara, as the gang leaders along with 12 other South Africans and Pakistanis – including Jacqueline. The gang also included SARS, Home Affairs and officials from Cipro, the company registration office.
Alizara returned to South Africa in early 2009. He was flagged at the airport, arrested and charged with fraud, money laundering and corruption.
Several of the other members, including several officials, were also picked up and charged. The Asset Forfeiture Unit seized all the Naqvi assets: houses, cars, expensive electronic goods and cash.
The police issued a warrant for Jacqueline’s arrest. The family in Lahore was concerned that she might “turn” and told her she was not leaving.
They confiscated her passport, money and said she could only leave the house if accompanied by an in-law.
This was the beginning of three years of slavery and abuse.
SARS and the police discovered where Pienaar was and asked Interpol to assist. They issued an international warrant for her arrest and served it on the Pakistani authorities.
“The family have excellent connections in the Pakistani police. They knew about the warrant before it was even served. They said they were not worried. It would go away. It did,” said Pienaar.
Pienaar’s brother-in-law was assigned to guard her. He always carried a pistol. He beat her, threatened to rape her and fired a shot at her. The bullet whizzed past her head. Another family member broke a plate over her heard.
The family ordered Jacqueline to marry her brother-in-law. She refused. She was beaten even more.
“I knew I couldn’t live like that. I was a slave and treated like a piece of dog shit. I had to lock myself in my room so that my brother-in-law couldn’t rape me. I had to get out.”
Pienaar was allowed to speak occasionally to her sister in South Africa. They always spoke in Afrikaans. Early last year, she told her sister to contact the South African investigators and tell them that she wanted out and would co-operate with them.
When Pienaar spoke to her sister again, the woman handed her phone to a SARS investigator.
“I told this person I had two conditions: my children were coming with me and you cannot co-operate with Pakistani police. They would tell the family and I’d be dead.”
For several months afterwards, Pienaar and the SARS investigator plotted her escape. They spoke in Afrikaans so the family would think she was talking to her sister.
Then, last year, the SARS investigator told Jacqueline that they were coming to Pakistan to get her.
She told her contact in South Africa that every Tuesday or Wednesday morning, her mother-in-law and brother-in-law left the house to put flowers the graves of their loved ones.
“That was the chance to run; to get the hell out of here. But I would only have a few minutes. If you’re not there, I’m dead. And you have to know that once they know I’m gone, every policeman in this country would be looking for me.”
By then, the South African government had made contact with their Pakistani counterparts on the highest level. They agreed to assist the South Africans to get their citizens out and clear their way through Islamabad’s international airport.
By the beginning of August 2011, a team consisting of SARS investigators and State Security Agency agents were dispatched to Pakistan to do surveillance.
On the last day of August last year, Pienaar and her two children slipped out of the complex as her in-laws left to attend to the family graves.
Where are we going, the children, age four and six, wanted to know?
Pienaar told them: We are going to play in the park, and if I say run, you run.
Why must we run?
It’s part of the game. Just run if I say so, Pienaar told them.
A few meters out of the house, Pienaar ordered her children: “Run, just run! Around that corner!”
She said she could only pray that cars with the South Africans agents were waiting as they had agreed the day before.
The two children were picked and bundled along with Pienaar into one of the cars.
They sped away. In the car were toys and clothes for the children and South African passports and air tickets. Pienaar burst into tears. The children shrieked with delight. They thought it was a joy ride.
Security in and around Lahore was greatly intensified after the assignation of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden four months earlier. Foreign intelligence agents were certainly not welcomed.
But the convoy didn’t head for Lahore’s international airport.
Instead, they drove 260 kilometres towards the capital of Islamabad where an Emirates plane destined for Dubai was waiting.
Pakistani officials whisked the South Africans through customs at Islamabad’s international airport.
Before Jacqueline boarded the plane, she signed an affidavit admitting her complicity in the syndicate and undertook to fully co-operate with the investigators.
Pienaar and her two children arrived at OR Tambo on the 1st of September last year and she went into a witness protection programme.
A short while later, she appeared in court and pleaded guilty to fraud. She was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, suspended for five years.
This week, over the gleaming table at SARS in Pretoria, Pienaar concludes: “I’m taking my punishment like a man. I know there a hell, because I was there.”