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S.African judge in Zuma graft trial recuses himself

Tuesday January 31, 2023

Former president Jacob Zuma has been fighting a years-long battle against his prosecution on corruption charges © Phill Magakoe / AFP/File

A South African judge presiding over Jacob Zuma's arms corruption trial recused himself on Monday, in a move likely to add further delay in an affair already dating back more than two decades.

Judge Piet Koen, who has presided over the case for several years, announced he would step aside following a decision to dismiss Zuma's bid to force out the prosecutor, Billy Downer.

Zuma accused Downer of leaking confidential medical documents to the media.

In December the Constitutional Court backed Koen's decision, concluding that Zuma's application to remove Downer had no reasonable prospects of success.

The decision by the top court cleared one of the last legal hurdles for the long-running trial to get underway.

The situation has been further complicated, however, by a bid by Zuma to force out Downer through a private prosecution.

On Monday Koen announced he had decided "to recuse myself from the trial" to avoid any risk of compromising the perception of justice.

His rejection of Zuma's bid to oust Downer could have been held against him in the future, "when the issue of whether Mr Zuma has received a constitutionally fair trial will arise for determination," Koen said.

Withdrawing from the case "is what the sound administration of justice, the requirements of the constitution and my conscience dictates," Koen told the court in Pietermaritzburg.

"The integrity of the judicial process must be protected against any reasonable taint of suspicion so that the public and litigants may have the highest confidence in the integrity and fairness of our courts," he said.

Zuma's spokesman Mzwanele Manyi applauded the judge's "sober decision" which he said was "in the interest of justice."

'Another enormous delay'

Zuma faces 16 counts of fraud, graft and racketeering over the purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and equipment from five European arms firms while he was vice president in the late 1990s.

The accusations arise from a contract that was sealed in 1999, when he was vice president.

The embattled former head of state's long-awaited trial ran into a string of legal delays after starting in May 2021.

In between his defence team secured a postponement on health grounds.

Zuma, 80, once dubbed the "Teflon president", led South Africa from 2009 until 2018, when the ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced him out as graft scandals besetting his government brewed into a political storm.

In July 2021, he was given a 15-month jail term for contempt of court after refusing to testify before a panel probing financial sleaze and cronyism under his presidency.

That case is separate from the arms scandal, in which he allegedly took bribes from French defence giant Thales, which has also been charged with corruption and money laundering.

Both Thales and Zuma deny any wrongdoing.

Proceedings were to have resumed on Monday but were postponed to April 17 to enable Koen's successor, Judge Nkosinathi Chili, take the reins.

But the case could suffer "another enormous delay" given the likely need to await the outcome of Zuma's private suit, said University of Cape Town law professor Cathy Powell.

Wim Trengove, a lawyer representing the state, once acerbically referred to the countless postponements as "Stalingrad: Season 27" -- a reference to the perceived strategy of entrenched delay by the defence.


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