JOHANNESBURG, Oct 3 (Reuters) South Africa's Scorpions crime unit is in the political spotlight again amid reports it was preparing to arrest the nation's police commissioner, the latest high-profile official targeted by the elite force.
Unease over the activities of the Directorate of Special Operations, the official name of the Scorpions, has been building within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) since President Thabo Mbeki announced the formation of the FBI-style crime unit in 1999.
ANC members, especially those backing Jacob Zuma in his bid to succeed Mbeki as party leader, have accused the Scorpions of abusing power to settle political scores, some dating back to the pre-1994 era of white minority rule.
The inclusion of apartheid-era security agents among the Scorpions has further raised hackles within the party.
''They have shown themselves to be effective against corruption, but they have also been seen as being used against certain people,'' said analyst Sipho Seepe, an Mbeki critic.
''The issue of political bias hangs very strongly within the body politic on the Scorpions,'' Seepe added.
Worries the unit oversteps its boundaries resurfaced last week when local media reported the Scorpions had been authorised to arrest national police chief Jackie Selebi in a probe into his alleged ties to organised crime. He denies the allegations.
State broadcaster SABC and several South African newspapers said an arrest warrant was issued for Selebi, whose police service has waged a bitter turf war with the Scorpions.
Authorities, including the National Prosecuting Authority, the agency that oversees the Scorpions, have refused to confirm the existence of the warrant and said only that Selebi, who has been defended in the past by Mbeki, was under investigation.
The suspension of NPA chief Vusi Pikoli added to the confusion and stoked talk of conspiracies.
Some revolve around a belief that Mbeki uses the NPA to punish rivals, while others see the agency as a rogue outfit operating for its own interests.
No one from the NPA or the Scorpions was available for comment.
EMBROILED IN CONTROVERSY The Scorpions have been controversial almost from inception.
Some South Africans turned a blind eye to accusations of heavy-handed tactics out of a desire to see rampant crime tackled.
The mood changed in 2005 when the Scorpions went after Zuma, who was the country's deputy president at the time, in an investigation into allegations he had accepted bribes from his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik and a French arms firm.
Agents raided properties belonging to Zuma and his lawyer, uncovering information used to charge Zuma, who was fired by Mbeki during the scandal.
But the seizures were ruled unconstitutional and the corruption case against Zuma unravelled. Zuma's camp alleges the Scorpions have been used to smear their hero politically.
The Scorpions have been praised for doggedly pursuing sensitive criminal cases.
The unit says its achievements include being the first institution to ''pierce the veil of grand corruption'' in South Africa, and taking on the ten biggest financial crime cases and the top 20 crime syndicate leaders.
The Scorpions uncovered evidence used to convict Shaik in 2005. South Africa's Constitutional Court yesterday refused to grant him an appeal.
The Shaik victory, however, has not been enough to remove the cloud hanging over the Scorpions.
''The way the Scorpions (and the NPA) have continued to conduct themselves has raised a lot of eyebrows, and the people have lost faith in the institutions,'' South African Communist Party spokesman Malesela Maleka told SAPA news agency recently.
The SACP, which is in a formal coalition with the ANC, is generally seen to be backing Zuma for the party leadership.
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