A white-haired, mustached bailiff arrived in a small Canadian community this January with an unusual mission — he was to seize an African king's plane.
It was five minutes after the winter sunrise in Huron Park, Ont., midway between Detroit and Toronto. The bailiff and a property appraiser had called on a luxury plane workshop that specializes in serving the rich and famous. With visitor passes in tow, they walked into a grey hangar where Swaziland King Mswati III's official plane was getting its entertainment system upgraded. Physically, it had been in no condition to fly. Now, legally, it was grounded as well.
According to legal documents, the bailiff was acting under a court order sought by an alleged creditor to Mswati, the multi-millionaire dictator who rules as Africa's last absolute monarch.
Court files do not indicate Mswati was present for the seizure, or even in Canada, though the plane's detention forced him to "miss several international events." The plane was denied diplomatic immunity, and court files exposed what appears to be a royal lie about its once-murky origins. Files obtained under Canada's Access to Information Act hint at futile attempts by Swazi representatives to get the Canadian government to intervene.
The plane was released four months later, in spring, but not before Mswati's side handed over $3.5 million (US) — the amount allegedly owed — so the sum could be held hostage in place of the plane as the case spends the year trudging through the judiciary.
Now, as another winter looms, the bizarre saga has made its way before the Supreme Court of Canada.
Described in the media as the "playboy king," Mswati has 15 wives and owns more than half the land in his kingdom east of South Africa, along with fleets of luxury cars and 13 palaces. He lives large — and he lives unyieldingly. Political parties are banned in Swaziland and dissidents frequently find themselves in prison.
More than a decade ago, another alleged creditor tried to sue Mswati domestically, only to be eventually told the king is constitutionally above the law and nothing can be done.
Outside Swaziland, however, sometimes even kings are mortal.
The alleged creditor in the current case, which was first revealed by the Toronto Star, is Shanmuga Rethenam, a Singaporean aviation businessman who says he sold Mswati the plane in 2010 for $11.45 million (US) and that the king owes him additional money for modifications — performed at the same workshop where the plane was eventually seized.
Rethenam said he did not seek repayment then as he wanted to maintain good ties in another business arrangement with Mswati: a Swazi mining venture. But that collapsed last year due to what he says are Mswati's bullying business tactics.
"I had to do what I had to do," Rethenam said about the legal action in Canada in a recent interview with VICE News. "All these are hard-earned monies. It's not like I got all these from a lottery or something."
Rethenam's allegations have not yet been tested, though with the dispute before court, another issue emerged.
In a country with an annual average income of under $3,000, the luxury plane's arrival had raised eyebrows and attracted questions. A royal spokesman said in 2012 it was an anonymous gift and left it at that. But in affidavits filed to court, not only did Rethenam contradict that statement, so did Sihle Dlamini, Mswati's private secretary and royal estate manager, who said it was indeed a purchase. Dlamini declined to comment. Spokespeople from Swaziland's government press office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
As news of the seizure reached Swaziland, its parliament — where political parties are banned and Mswati appoints nearly one-fifth of its 55 members — leaped to the king's defence. The Swazi Observer reported MPs were "furious at Canada."
Internal emails obtained from Global Affairs Canada — then known as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development — show Swazi representatives raised the issue at least four times from January 20 to February 10. There appears to have been only one formal response from the agency, in a letter signed February 10.
The contents of those correspondences are unclear. Canadian civil servants heavily redacted the emails, citing parts of the Access to Information Act that allow for withholding information "obtained in confidence" whose release may be "injurious to the conduct of international affairs."
Global Affairs refused to comment on the letters and calls, and seems to be keeping its distance. A spokeswoman gave only a two-sentence statement in response to a list of questions from VICE News: "We are aware that there is an ongoing court case. Because the issue is before the courts we cannot comment any further." In response to further questions, she said the agency "is not involved."
This appears to be a battle destined for the open court, rather than secretive diplomatic channels.
In his affidavit, Dlamini denied the alleged debt, saying Rethenam paid for the modifications out of his own volition and that there was no repayment agreement. He also blamed Rethenam for the collapse of the joint mining venture. Mswati has not given a statement.
Court files indicate Mswati's side will spend up to $350,000 in legal fees; it has hired Kenneth Prehogan, the head of his firm's litigation department who once represented a former Canadian prime minister. Prehogan declined to comment, saying he "cannot" do so while the matter is before court.
In March, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled diplomatic immunity does not apply as the case involves "commercial activity," but it also ruled the plane's seizure illegal on technical grounds. It did not rule on the alleged debt itself, but if the plane could not have been legally seized, Rethenam cannot pursue the issue in Canada as Mswati has no other assets in the country. Court, however, ordered the plane remain impounded until the conclusion of Rethenam's appeal.
In May, while waiting for the appeal, the plane was released after Mswati's side deposited $3.5 million (US) into the trust account of Prehogan's firm.
In June, Rethenam lost at the Court of Appeal of Ontario.
But there was solace. Judges ruled the $3.5 million should be held until the end of Rethenam's final appeal to the Supreme Court.
It is not clear when Supreme Court judges will release their decision as there is no limit to how long they can deliberate. If they allow the appeal, there will be a trial on the issue. If they do not, the $3.5 million gets returned and Rethenam's battle is lost.
The war, however, continues. Rethenam is also fighting Mswati in the British Virgin Islands, where his aviation firm is registered and where he has upped his demand to about $8 million (US), taking into account other debts the king allegedly owes. That is separate from the case in Canada, and Rethenam has obtained a BVI court order to freeze Mswati's assets in the "jurisdiction of any other court which recognizes this order" while the case runs its course.
According to court documents from BVI, lawyers for Mswati's side want to move that case to Canada, where there has already been a favorable judgement and where Rethenam will have a harder time given Canada's stricter statute of limitations. The parties met for a hearing last month and the issue of the proposed jurisdiction shift is expected to be resolved this month at the earliest, Rethenam said.
According to the businessman, Mswati's side has said the king does not have any assets outside Swaziland, meaning he may not get any money even if he eventually wins in BVI. But the freezing order has effectively chained Mswati's plane to Swaziland.
"The plane needs to fly out of the country one day, and that is when we will enforce the injunction," Rethenam said.
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