Bloemfontein, South Africa | AFP | Lawyers for South African President Jacob Zuma appeared to abandon efforts on Thursday to fight the reinstatement of nearly 800 bribery charges against the embattled leader.
Zuma’s attorney shocked the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein when they accepted that a 2009 decision by prosecutors to drop 783 corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma was “irrational”.
Charges were first brought against Zuma in 2005, dropped by prosecutors in 2009 and ordered reinstated last year by the North Gauteng High Court after a legal campaign by the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party.
The president’s lawyers — as well as the National Prosecuting Authority — had appealed that ruling.
That move led to Thursday’s hearing, which finished inconclusively and without an expected date for the court’s final decision.
If the judges uphold the lower court’s decision, it would open the door to Zuma’s prosecution.
Zuma is accused of taking kickbacks from the $5 billion (4.2 billion euros) post-apartheid purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and other arms manufactured by five European firms, including British military equipment maker BAE systems and French company Thales.
The charges were dropped in 2009 after claims emerged that there had been political interference in the case that could have prejudiced Zuma’s defence.
The Supreme Court judges argued forcefully on Thursday that the prosecuting authority had failed to prove that those anomalies would have denied Zuma a fair hearing.
At the time charges were brought in 2005, Zuma was embroiled in a bitter power struggle with former president Thabo Mbeki and was forced to resign because of his legal woes.
– ‘Charges being reinstituted’ –
In 2007, Zuma replaced Mbeki as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and forced him from the presidential palace in 2008.
Since then, the DA has been to court a dozen times to have the charges reinstated against Zuma.
Asked by one of the judges if he defended the decision to drop the charges, Zuma’s lawyer Kemp J. Kemp said: “No I’m not defending it.”
“You accept that the decision was irrational and cannot stand ?” asked another of the judges.
“Yes,” said Kemp.
The unexpected developments have given the DA new hope that Zuma will soon have his day in court.
“(This) opens the door, in our view, to the inevitability of the charges being reinstituted,” DA chairman James Selfe told journalists following the hearing.
“He should have been prosecuted at the time, it is actually outrageous that eight-and-a-half years later and millions of rands of legal cost later, we get to the stage where we should have been in 2007.”
Opposition parties have mounted several bids to have Zuma removed from office in recent months including a vote of no confidence and an opposition bid to dissolve parliament.
But Zuma has survived several legal challenges alongside allegations of corruption and incompetence.
The ruling ANC party’s elective conference in December will elect a new party leader who will likely go on to be the organisation’s presidential candidate in polls due in 2019.
Any reinstatement of charges threatens to undermine Zuma’s preferred successor, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and could even see him pushed from office before 2019.