Gupta Brothers, Accused of Corruption in South Africa, Are Arrested in Dubai

JOHANNESBURG — A pair of Indian-born businessmen known simply as the Gupta brothers, who became notorious in South Africa amid accusations that they facilitated sweeping public corruption and gutted state resources, have been arrested in Dubai, the South African government has announced.

The arrests of Atul and Rajesh Gupta, announced on Monday and confirmed by Dubai a day later, came about four years after the brothers fled South Africa in the face of intense law-enforcement scrutiny and public outrage. It marks a significant moment in a yearslong battle by government reformists and civil society to hold to account those believed to have been responsible for “state capture” — the endemic corruption of public officials and enterprises that has contributed to South Africa’s economic malaise.

“It’s hugely significant” in symbolic terms, said Thulisile Madonsela, a former public official who laid much of the groundwork exposing the Guptas’ relationship with government officials. “People were getting worried that it seems that there’s only accountability for the small fish involved in state capture, and not for the big fish.”

Ms. Madonsela began investigating questionable spending of public funds by the former president, Jacob Zuma, about a decade ago, when she was South Africa’s public protector, an independent official charged with supporting democracy. That investigation exposed widespread government corruption and Mr. Zuma’s close ties to the Gupta brothers, who have been accused of getting government ministers appointed who would help their companies secure lucrative contracts.

According to an investigator who testified before a commission investigating state corruption, the Guptas were able to secure at least $3.2 billion worth of government business through a vast network of corporations. They have been accused of obtaining fraudulent contracts, laundering money and using their government connections to help other businesses get access to contracts in exchange for kickbacks.

“Having the key suspects in the state capture saga arrested and compelled to account for their alleged wrongdoing is going to boost hope among the people of South Africa that there isn’t one law for those without money and another for those with money,” Ms. Madonsela said.

Michael Hellens, a lawyer for the Guptas, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The brothers have maintained that they did nothing wrong and are the victims of infighting within the governing party, the African National Congress. The Guptas have not been found criminally liable in cases involving them that have so far made it into South African courts.

There could remain a long path between the arrest of the Gupta brothers in Dubai and their actually facing justice in South Africa.

The governments of South Africa and Dubai reached an extradition treaty last year. While that sets a framework for the Guptas to be returned to South Africa, it remains unclear how quickly that would happen and whether the brothers could successfully fight that in court.

“Discussions between various law enforcement agencies in the U.A.E. and South Africa on the way forward are ongoing,” Chrispin Phiri, a spokesman for South Africa’s Ministry of Justice, said in a statement.

In February, Interpol issued a “red notice” for both Gupta brothers, a request that they be detained pending extradition. The Dubai police said in a statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday that they had arrested the brothers after receiving the notice, which related to allegations that a company led by an associate of the Guptas had acquired a fraudulent $1.6 million contract from Free State province in South Africa for a rural agriculture project there.

Mark Heywood, a social justice activist in South Africa, helped several years ago to obtain a trove of emails related to the Guptas that were widely published in the South African news media and led to numerous stories exposing corruption allegations against the family.

Mr. Heywood, who now edits Maverick Citizen, the social justice arm of a South African news organization, said the arrest of the Guptas, along with other recent arrests of people implicated in corruption, was quelling some public concerns that no one would be held accountable for state capture.

“It suggests the pendulum has swung a little bit,” he said. “We have to make sure it swings the whole way.”

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