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Sunday, July 25, 2021

South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma seeks delay as graft trial resumes online without support crowd


Jacob Zuma’s long-running corruption trial resumed Monday, with the ex-president appearing virtually from jail in a bid to avert more of the violence that swept South Africa after he was imprisoned in a separate case.

Zuma’s lawyers are seeking to have the case postponed by up to three weeks because of the unrest and the pandemic to allow time for the trial to resume physically in court.

Judge Piet Koen adjourned the case and said he would make a ruling on the arguments made by Zuma’s legal team on Tuesday at 0800 GMT.

Security was tight around the High Court in the southeastern city of Pietermaritzburg, capital of Zuma’s home region of KwaZulu-Natal, where loyalists have previously gathered, but barely any supporters turned out Monday.

Zuma, 79, faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering related to the 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and equipment from five European arms firms when he was deputy president.

He is accused of taking bribes from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales, which has been charged with corruption and money laundering.

The trial started in May after numerous postponement and delays, as Zuma’s legal team battled to have the charges dropped.

An emotionless Zuma made a virtual appearance from prison in the nearby town of Estcourt, sitting on a black office chair in a white-walled room, clad in a black suit, white shirt and red tie.

He had proclaimed his innocence when he appeared in person for the opening in May. Thales has also pleaded not guilty.

On June 29, Zuma was separately found guilty of contempt of South Africa’s top court for snubbing graft investigators probing his time as president. He was jailed on July 8.

South Africa was then plunged into chaos, with looting and rioting erupting in KwaZulu-Natal, before spreading to the economic hub of Johannesburg, claiming more than 200 lives.

The total bill could reach 50 billion rand ($3.4 billion), according to consultancy Intellidex.

The unrest, which subsided by the weekend, was widely seen as at least partially in response to Zuma’s imprisonment.

The trial resumed virtually to avoid more “disruption”, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) told AFP, although other court cases are also being heard online due to the pandemic.

But Zuma’s legal team claimed the online format is unconstitutional and has applied for the trial to be adjourned.

His lawyer Dali Mpofu argued that Zuma was being denied the right to a “public trial in front of an ordinary court,” to be physically present and consult his defence.

Zuma’s legal team has also demanded that chief prosecutor Billy Downer recuse himself from the case over claims he leaked information to the media.

Downer has accused them of delaying tactics, which Mpofu vehemently denied.

Wim Trengove, an attorney representing the NPA, argued that there was no basis for Downer’s recusal, describing the request as “merely a ruse” and accused Zuma’s lawyers of “recycling old complaints”.

Observers had previously feared that Monday’s hearing could reignite tensions that had eased by the weekend but the situation was calm outside the court.

The charismatic ex-leader has retained a fervent support base within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and among the general public.

His followers portray him as a man of the people and a defender of the poor.

Zuma and his backers have repeatedly dismissed scrutiny of the ex-president’s conduct as politically motivated and warned his jailing would spark unrest.

But they deny being behind the recent turmoil.

Zuma, once dubbed the “Teflon president”, has started serving a 15-month jail sentence for contempt.

He was arrested for disobeying a Constitutional Court order to testify before a judicial panel probing the plunder of state coffers during his nine-year presidency.

Zuma, who was ousted as president in 2018, only testified once in July 2019.



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