CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Even in this crime-plagued country it stood out as a tragedy: A honeymooning couple from abroad is carjacked and the wife's body is found in their abandoned taxi the next morning.
In a twist revealed Tuesday in court, however, the taxi driver confessed that it was no random act of violence – that he was hired by the husband to kill his bride.
By accepting the confession in a plea bargain, South African authorities gave credence to the driver's story but would not immediately confirm that the husband, Shrien Dewani of Britain, was being sought in the death of his 28-year-old wife, Anni.
In a statement later Tuesday, Dewani's family said the 31-year-old businessman was "totally innocent of any involvement in this heinous crime."
"These allegations are totally ludicrous and very hurtful to a young man who is grieving the loss of the woman he loved, his chosen life partner," the statement said, adding that Dewani was receiving trauma and bereavement counseling in Britain.
The family said South African police had not sought to speak to Dewani about the driver's allegations. The statement also referred to reports that two other suspects in the case have complained they were tortured into making false confessions.
The couple, both of Indian descent, had married in India two weeks before arriving in South Africa last month. Photographs from their traditional wedding show them smiling in jewels and richly embroidered robes.
British media reports said Dewani helps run his family's business in England – a string of nursing homes. His wife, from a wealthy Swedish family, was an engineer and part-time model, they said.
Mthunzi Mhaga, spokesman for South Africa's national prosecuting office, said Tuesday a bid to request Dewani's extradition is "a matter that is likely to be considered" as part of continuing investigations.
"Based on what happened in court today, obviously the investigations are going to intensify," Mhaga said.
Anni Dewani's father, Vinod Hindocha, left Tuesday's court hearing – his eyes wet with tears – and he thanked investigators and those people inside and outside South Africa who had offered his family support.
"We are very, very confident about the police investigation," Hindocha said.
In his confession, taxi driver Zola Tongo said he took the couple from the airport to their hotel on Nov. 13 when they arrived in Cape Town following a stay at Kruger, South Africa's most famous game park. Once Anni Dewani was out of earshot, Tongo said the husband asked if he could find someone to kill her.
Tongo said Shrien Dewani offered 15,000 rand (about $2,100) to each person involved, but paid only 1,000 (about $145).
Once Tongo's confession was read in court, a translator asked in the Xhosa language whether he understood. Tongo, who stood with his eyes lowered throughout the hearing in a courtroom packed with foreign and domestic reporters, said he did – his only comment.
As a result of his plea bargain, Tongo was convicted of kidnapping, murder, aggravated robbery and obstructing justice, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was expected to testify against the other suspects, including two South Africans who were arrested soon after Anni Dewani's body was found.
The women's league of South Africa's governing African National Congress party said Tongo's sentence was too lenient "and undermines our nation's commitment to ensure that all those who perpetuate violence against women are removed from our society."
Tongo's confession did not touch on a possible motive for the husband.
Shrien Dewani has told authorities the couple was returning to their hotel from dinner and had detoured to visit an impoverished township when gunmen forced him and the taxi driver from the vehicle. Neither Shrien Dewani nor the driver were hurt.
Anni Dewani's body was found in the vehicle the next morning in another township. Among the questions raised about the case was why the attackers did not steal the vehicle.
National police chief Bheki Cele told reporters Nov. 18 that Anni Dewani had been shot in the back of the neck. He said she had not been sexually assaulted.
The case has drawn wide attention in Britain and South Africa, where violent crime is high but attacks on foreign tourists are rare. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners attended soccer's World Cup in South Africa last summer, and no serious incidents were reported.
The South African case had echoes of a 2003 Australian death involving an American honeymooning couple.
Gabe Watson, an accomplished diver from Alabama, was dubbed the "Honeymoon Killer" by the Australian media after his wife drowned during a 2003 scuba diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef. In 2008, Australian authorities found there was sufficient evidence to charge Watson with her death.
Officials argued he killed his wife by turning off her air supply and holding her underwater. Watson acknowledged in his plea in Australia that he committed a negligent act, failing to do enough to save his wife. But Watson denies deliberately trying to kill her.
He served an 18-month sentence in Australia after pleading guilty last year to manslaughter but now faces murder charges that could carry a much stiffer punishment in his home state.
Associated Press writers Gillian Smith in London and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.