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Former South African president Zuma charged with corruption over arms deal

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma celebrates with his supporters in Cape Town on Aug. 8, 2017.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters

South African prosecutors have announced that they will purse a long-delayed corruption case against former president Jacob Zuma, ordering him to court to face 16 charges of racketeering, fraud, corruption and money laundering.

“I am of the view that there are reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution of Mr. Zuma on the charges listed in the indictment,” said Shaun Abrahams, head of the National Prosecuting Authority, in a nationally televised statement on Friday.

Mr. Zuma has deployed an arsenal of legal tactics to delay the corruption charges for the past 13 years, but his support has rapidly dwindled sincehis forced resignation from the presidency last month.

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He has been pressing for the charges to be dropped, but Mr. Abrahams said he rejected the latest series of legal arguments from Mr. Zuma.

“I am of the view that a trial court would be the most appropriate forum for these issues to be ventilated and to be decided upon,” Mr. Abrahams said.

“Alleged perpetrators of crime will be prosecuted without fear, favour or prejudice, irrespective of their station in life … Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.”

Mr. Abrahams was appointed by Mr. Zuma and was widely seen as a Zuma loyalist when the former president was still in power. But since leaving office, Mr. Zuma has lost many of his allies.

It was revealed this week that the government has spent about US$1.3-million on legal fees to defend Mr. Zuma from the corruption charges in connection with an arms deal in the late 1990s. He could be forced to repay the money if he is found guilty.

In addition to the corruption charges announced on Friday, he is also accused of helping the controversial Gupta family earn millions of dollars in inflated contracts from state-owned companies. He and the Guptas have denied any wrongdoing, but a judicial inquiry has been appointed to investigate.

The corruption charges have been looming over Mr. Zuma since 2005, when businessman Schabir Shaik was convicted and sentenced to prison for paying bribes to him. Prosecutors have cited 783 separate payments to Mr. Zuma that they described as bribery and corruption, stemming from a US$4.8-billion arms purchase by the South African government in 1999 when Mr. Zuma was deputy president.

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Just weeks before he was elected president in 2009, prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against Mr. Zuma, but opposition parties and activists have been fighting to restore the case ever since.

The local affiliate of the French arms company Thales will also face corruption charges in the Zuma case, according to South African media, quoting a spokesperson for the national prosecuting agency. Thales was among several European companies that received contracts in the arms deal in the late 1990s. Payments from Thales were allegedly funnelled to Mr. Zuma through his friend Mr. Shaik.

Analysts say Mr. Zuma could still use further legal tactics to delay the prosecution for years. Local media have described his legal strategy as the “Stalingrad defence” – a relentless effort to find any technical method to stall the charges and defend himself.

Opposition leaders hailed the decision of the prosecuting authority to pursue the corruption charges. “Zuma’s day in court is years overdue,” said Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, which launched the first court case to reinstate the corruption charges in 2009.

“There must be no further delay in starting the trial,” he said in a statement on Friday. “The witnesses are ready, the evidence is strong, and Jacob Zuma must finally have his day in court.”

Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, said Mr. Zuma should be forced to repay the US$1.3-million in legal costs that the government has paid for him.

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The decision to pursue the corruption charges “is a sign that some of the checks and balances of our democracy are healthy,” he said.

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