‘A slap on the wrist and a slap in the face’

A shocked Jenny Cullinan outside the Simon’s Town Magistrate’s Court.

A slap on the wrist and a slap in the face for victims of gender violence – that’s how one of Simon’s Town bee researcher Jenny Cullinan’s supporters described the sentence for the man who assaulted her.

After a two-year-long trial, the Simon’s Town Magistrate’s Court, on Wednesday August 30, found businessman Neel Ramlall guilty of common assault – instead of assault with the intent to do grievous bodily harm, with which he was originally charged – and sentenced him to a R1200 fine or four months in jail.

Ms Cullinan says she plans to appeal the judgment.

Mr Ramlall was accused of hitting Ms Cullinan with a stick with a sharpened end on a mountain near Cape Point Nature Reserve on July 31, 2021 (“Bee researcher’s case postponed again,” Echo, August 25, 2022).

The court earlier heard that the assault left her with a 2cm laceration on her head that was approximately 2mm deep and needed three stitches. She also had a bruise on the left side of her forehead that looked like a haematoma, and a laceration on the outer side of her right arm (“‘Significant force’ caused Cullinan’s head wound, court hears,” Echo February 2).

Mr Ramlall earlier testified that Ms Cullinan had been the aggressor, had threatened to search him, had sworn at him, and had slapped him, and he had tried to keep her “at bay” with the stick (‘“She attacked me,’ says accused in bee researchers case,” Echo, July 27).

When delivering his judgment, Magistrate L van Rhoodie said only Ms Cullinan and Mr Ramlall had been present on the day of the assault and that the testimony of the other witness, Mr Ramlall’s wife, Yogandrie Naidoo, was “circumstantial”, as she and their son had not been close enough when the assault had happened.

He said Ms Cullinan had testified that she had been assaulted with a stick, but her testimony had not been in line with the testimony about her injuries by the State’s third witness, Dr Steven van der Merwe.

Mr Van Rhoodie said Mr Ramlall had claimed Ms Cullinan had hit him first, but she had only had two small dogs with her, and given her build, it was unlikely she had approached the accused and started to assault him.

He found Mr Ramlall had been provoked by Ms Cullinan approaching him, but said because Mr Ramlall had “totally lost his cool” during his testimony, it was indeed possible that he could have assaulted her because she had sustained injuries.

He said he could not make a finding that Ms Cullinan’s head injury was sustained as a result of a fall, as earlier claimed by Mr Ramlall during his testimony, and it must have been due to “some sort of attack”.

“I’ve decided to make a finding that the accused did not act in self-defence, and the complainant was assaulted… I find him guilty of common assault.”

State prosecutor Keanan Petersen, standing in for Chandré Greene, asked the court to stand down so Ms Greene could address the court as it was her case.

The request was denied.

In mitigation, Mr Ramlall’s lawyer, Sonja van den Heever, said he had no previous convictions and was the primary caregiver for his family.

She requested a “discharge” in the matter and said Mr Ramlall had suffered financial strain as a result of the accusation and that the community and supporters of Ms Cullinan had harassed him.

“That in itself has been some kind of punishment for my client,” she said.

She asked that the court not find him unfit to carry a firearm, which he had had for the past 30 years.

Mr Petersen again requested a stand down for Ms Greene to address the court and it was again denied.

In aggravation of the sentence, Mr Petersen argued that gender-based violence was not only prevalent in “this court” but in “this country”.

He said Ms Cullinan had not asked to be assaulted, and he urged the court to take into account the views of the community, which he said was “outraged” by the incident.

He asked the court to impose a sentence of direct imprisonment and declare Mr Ramlall unfit to possess a firearm.

However, Mr Van Rhoodie said that as it was Mr Ramlall’s first offence, the court had decided to not declare him unfit to possess a firearm.

Outside court, Ms Cullinan said she was disappointed with the sentence.

“What does this say of our justice system and of women in our community? We have to use my case to show how broken the system is. It is broken, broken, broken…”

If this was how the country punished violent men, it would never get over the pandemic of violence against women, she said, adding that she planned to seek leave to appeal the judgment.

Zandile Matika, a member of Action SA and a supporter of Ms Cullinan, called the sentence “very unfair”.

“This court has just given men the green light to beat women. What is R1200? You can’t even buy a snack with it,” she said.

Another supporter, Jacques de Lange, said gender-based violence was a major problem in the country, and cases like this showed that women were failed every day by the justice system.

“If a perpetrator sees this, it will encourage them to do the same, as the court doesn’t protect women. This sentence was a slap on the wrist and a slap in the face for every woman who has been a victim of gender-based violence,” he said.

Mr Ramlall remained in court and was not available to comment.

Men and women protested outside the Simon’s Town Magistrate’s Court in support of Jenny Cullinan and women who have been victims of gender-based violence.