JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When a Czech fugitive with shady underworld connections appeared in a South African court this week, journalists were barred from the courtroom because of fears they might be assassins in disguise, with guns hidden in their cameras and pens.
This James Bond-style scenario might sound far-fetched, but it is just the latest installment in the bizarre case of Radovan Krejcir.
The crime saga has captivated South Africa, offering a glimpse at the underbelly of the drugs and money laundering trade controlled by gangland bosses with powerful connections.
While Johannesburg is notorious for having a high crime rate, the Krejcir story is a particularly extreme example, with one man seemingly at the center of a whirlwind of murder and mayhem. It also highlights the issue of police corruption, which may have shielded him from prison until now.
At least a dozen people with links to Krejcir, who fled jail time for tax fraud in the Czech Republic in 2005, have died since 2010, according to local media reports.
Among them was strip club kingpin Lolly Jackson, infamous in South Africa for his oversized personality and controversial billboards. He died in a hail of bullets in 2010, allegedly after a dispute about borrowed money.
This month, two of Krejcir’s close associates were killed when a bomb went off at his diamond and gold exchange shop in the suburb of Bedfordview — an apparent assassination attempt.
Krejcir survived another assassination attempt in July, in which a dozen remote-controlled guns hidden behind the license plate of a car sprayed rounds into his bulletproof Mercedes-Benz.
The car, a stolen VW Polo, proceeded to burst into flames, destroying the evidence.
“All my life is like James Bond stuff,” Krejcir told Eyewitness News, a South African radio news outlet, at the time. “That’s how I live my life.”
But lately it seems his luck may have run out.
Krejcir was arrested last weekend on charges of kidnapping and assault with intention to do grievous bodily harm relating to the disappearance of a businessman.
His assets have been seized by the South African Revenue Service, and his business manager arrested and charged with fraud.
National police commissioner Riah Phiyega announced Krejcir’s arrest as a “significant breakthrough,” and said that more arrests may follow. But there are fears that alleged police misconduct may scupper the case.
Krejcir’s lawyers have claimed that after police arrested their client, they spirited him away to an open field, where they placed a plastic bag over his head and shocked him with a Taser gun.
South Africa’s police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, has launched an investigation into the claims.
On Monday, a Johannesburg high court ruled that Krejcir was unfit to remain in custody, and he was moved to an unidentified hospital for medical treatment, where he remains under police guard. Krejcir’s wife and children are said to have fled to South America.
Meanwhile, two police officers, both members of an organized crime unit, have been arrested for their alleged links to Krejcir.
The commander of their unit, Colonel Francois Steyn, is facing an internal investigation over accusations he received a R400,000 ($40,000) loan from a company believed to be controlled by Krejcir, the Johannesburg-based Mail & Guardian reported.
Through all of this, many South Africans have wondered how Krejcir has managed to remain in the country for so long.
He arrived here in 2007 on a false Seychellois passport, reportedly wearing a lousy disguise.
Two years earlier he had fled the Czech Republic following a police raid on his $20-million villa. A Czech court found Krejcir guilty in absentia on tax fraud charges, and sentenced him to six and a half years in prison.
During his time in South Africa, Krejcir has been charged with robbery and insurance fraud, though these charges were both dropped.
He has applied for political asylum in South Africa, and fought off attempts by the Czech Republic to have him brought home, even receiving a high court order to prevent the government from extraditing him pending the outcome of his appeal for refugee status.
In March a Czech court decided that Krejcir’s villa in Cernosice, near Prague, could be put up for auction. It includes squash courts, a secret vault room and a giant aquarium where Krejcir kept a pet shark.
Alas, no lasers were strapped to the big fish's head. Sorry.