South Africa's Zuma to face corruption trial

12Oct 2019
Correspondent
Johannesburg
The Guardian
South Africa's Zuma to face corruption trial

South African former President Jacob Zuma will stand trial on corruption charges relating to a $2 billion arms deal after a high court on Friday denied him a permanent stay of prosecution.

Jacob Zuma

The ruling by Judge Jerome Mnguni in Pietermaritzburg paves the way for Zuma’s long-awaited trial to start on Oct. 15.

The case is a rare example of an African leader being held to account for his actions. Zuma denies wrongdoing.

Zuma, in office from 2009-2018, had applied for a permanent stay of prosecution on 18 charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering relating to a deal to buy European military hardware for South Africa’s armed forces in the 1990s.

In May, Zuma’s lawyers argued that the 77-year-old had been treated unfairly by prosecutors and was a victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.

On Friday, Judge Mnguni dismissed an application by Zuma and his co-accused, French arms dealer Thales, to have the charges set aside permanently with costs. This means they will pay legal costs related to the application and hiring lawyers.

Thales said it was reviewing the judgment with its lawyers and would assess its legal options.

Zuma’s spokesman and a lawyer representing him were not immediately available for comment. Zuma and Thales have 15 days to appeal.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) respected the findings of the court, a spokeswoman told state broadcaster SABC news.

The charges against Zuma were originally filed a decade ago but then set aside by the NPA shortly before he successfully ran for president in 2009.

After his election, his opponents fought a lengthy legal battle to have the charges reinstated, finally succeeding in 2016. Zuma countered with his own legal challenges.

The official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has been at the forefront of the legal fight, welcomed the decision, saying: “We are encouraged by the ruling of the court to believe that Zuma will eventually have to face his day in court.

 “The DA will not rest until justice has been done.”

The speed with which prosecutors moved against Zuma of late is a sign of his waning influence since he was replaced as head of state by Cyril Ramaphosa, his former deputy.

Ramaphosa has made the fight against corruption a priority as he seeks to woo foreign investment and revamp the economy.

Meanwhile, a full Bench of the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg has unanimously dismissed former president Jacob Zuma’s application to have corruption, fraud and racketeering charges against him dropped, which means he may soon face arms deal-related charges after marathon delays in prosecution.

Judges Bhekisisa Mnguni, Thoba Poyo-Dlwati and Esther Steyn dismissed Zuma’s stay of prosecution application and ordered him to pay the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) legal costs.

The court also granted an application by the NPA to dismiss some claims in Zuma’s legal documents because they were “scandalous and/or vexatious” and impermissible as new evidence.

Zuma may still seek to appeal the judgment but the case is scheduled to proceed in the same court on Tuesday, 15 October. Zuma and French arms company Thales face one count of racketeering, four counts of corruption and one count of money laundering. Zuma faces an additional 12 counts of fraud.

Thales’s stay of prosecution application was also dismissed with costs.

“It has not been shown before us that there are no reasonable and probable grounds for prosecuting Mr Zuma. Importantly, the challenges by Mr Zuma are not aimed at the merits of the case against him. The same can be said about Thales,” reads Friday’s judgment.

The charges relate to alleged payments Zuma received from Thales, through his financial adviser Schabir Shaik, who was convicted in 2005. The former president is accused of using his political influence to protect the company from investigations into the arms deal and for allegedly trying to solicit a R500,000 bribe from the company.

Former NPA head Shaun Abrahams reintroduced the charges against Zuma and Thales in 2018 after Zuma and the NPA admitted in the Supreme Court of Appeal that then NPA boss Mokotedi Mpshe’s 2009 decision to withdraw the charges was irrational.

Zuma argued that the case should be dropped because the 15-year delay in prosecution had violated his right to a fair trial. He also claimed political interference by former president Thabo Mbeki and collusion between NPA and Scorpions leaders had undermined the case against him.

He claimed the case was tainted by an unreasonable delay, prejudice resulting from the NPA’s decision not to charge Zuma alongside Shaik, unconstitutional political interference, and pre-trial irregularities, including unlawfulness in the NPA’s investigation.

Representing Zuma during the May 2019 hearing, Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane said Zuma had long suffered the social stigma of being labelled corrupt while the NPA delayed proceeding with the case. He urged the court to respect the former president’s human rights and resist “lynching” and “mob justice”.

The High Court dismissed his arguments.

“The seriousness of the offences that Mr Zuma is facing outweighs any prejudice which he claims he will suffer if the trial proceeds. Furthermore, the reputational harm, which he claims to have suffered, goes hand in hand with being charged,” Friday’s judgment reads.

“In any event, this does not seem to have prevented him from ascending to the highest office in the country, being the President of the Republic.”

Both Zuma and the NPA were responsible for various delays in the case, the court said, with both parties having opposed the DA’s attempt to review Mpshe’s decision, dragging that case out between 2009 and 2017.

While Zuma pointed to a political conspiracy against him, including the “spy tapes” revelation that NPA head Bulelani Ngcuka and Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy had discussed the timing of charging him in 2007, the court said McCarthy’s motives were irrelevant to the facts of Zuma’s case.

The court also dismissed Zuma’s claim that he should have been charged alongside Shaik.

“As we see it, even if a joint trial would have had some benefit for Mr Zuma of which he was deprived of as a result of his prosecution being separated from Mr Shaik and the Nkobi group, it does not constitute prejudice of any kind, which would impact on the fairness of his trial.”

Zuma is yet to comment on the ruling and whether he will appeal.

Thales said it “is currently studying the judgment and will take appropriate steps to protect its rights”.

The DA, which led court efforts to have the charges reinstated, said Zuma has a case to answer.

The party’s shadow minister of justice Glynnis Breytenbach said, “We are encouraged by the ruling of the court to believe that Zuma will eventually have to face his day in court. The arc of the moral universe is often said to be long, but ultimately bending toward justice.”

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