It’s been 15 years since allegations of corruption first surfaced against former President Jacob Zuma. Now his trial finally started in the Pietermaritzburg Court on Wednesday.
Zuma and French arms manufacturer Thales, both pleaded not guilty to the charges they face including racketeering, corruption, fraud and money laundering in connection with the controversial arms deal of the 1990s.
The trial has been postponed to the 19th of July for argument, in the special plea application brought by Zuma against lead State Prosecutor senior counsel advocate Billy Downer.
Hearing adjourned until 19 July 2021
Former President’s legal team led by Advocate Dali Mpofu has, through a statement in terms of a special plea, accused State Advocate Billy Downer of lacking independence and impartiality.
Mpofu says that Zuma had been, in his own words, “crying for his day in court” and offered up a lengthy explanation as to why his client believed he would not receive a fair trial as long as Advocate Downer led the State’s case.
“There are facts and circumstances that give me a reasonable impression that Mr. Downer had conducted himself in a manner that lacks the independence and impartiality that is necessary for a lawful prosecution. Mr. Downer failed to uphold the standard and prosecutorial independence needed to secure that my trial is fair and conducted in accordance with the Constitution, Mr. Downer placed himself as a witness against me when he filed an affidavit in support of the Democratic Alliance application to review and set aside a decision by the NPA to terminate my prosecution.”
Despite Zuma’s so-called Stalingrad tactics employed to use every legal aspect to his disposal to halt his prosecution, he failed to convince the courts that the charges should be dismissed due to alleged political interference in the state’s case against him.
Thales faces four charges, one of racketeering, two of corruption and one of money laundering. The state accuses Zuma and Thales of organising and conducting a racketeering enterprise, a charge which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.
The state alleges that Zuma received hundreds of payments amounting to millions of rands via his then financial adviser, convicted fraudster, Shabir Shaik, at the time of the arms deal acquisition process in the 1990’s.
The state alleges that Zuma received a bribe of R500 000 a year from Thales, facilitated by Shaik. Other charges against Zuma include fraudulent tax claims and returns, non-disclosure of financial assistance to Parliament and lying to the institution about meeting with representatives from the arms manufacturer.
Advocate Downer has told the court the State was not yet ready to respond to the special plea, referring to the over 1 000-page document as voluminous. He says that it covered the lengthy litigation period.
“My Lord we then perused these papers and we are hard at work drafting our answer on these papers we have formed an attitude that the state is ready to put the charges to the accused and between my Learned Friend and the state agree than they will then tender their plea formally in court both the accused I must also mention that we also agreed the application in term of 106 I H is voluminous with thousand pages with annexes we all agreed that the state needs time to answer by the way of affidavits.”
The former President’s son Edward Zuma in court to support his father
Thales said in its plea explanation, denies that it was aware of any payments to Zuma via Shaik. Thales contends that its payments to Shaik’s businesses were legitimate business deals as a BEE partner in the arms deal.
Downer served the indictment on both Zuma and Thales, represented by Pierre-Marie du Randt.
Addressing the court, Counsel for Thales – Samantha Jackson – provided a brief and broad explanation of the basis of her client’s defense. In its plea explanation, Thales maintains that its payments to Shaik’s businesses were legitimate business deals as a BEE partner at the time. Jackson elaborates on the details around the racketeering charge.
“The alleged specific corruption as a racketing act, it is also alleged that the second accused corruptly entered into an agreement with Shaik and or the alleged enterprise the first accused to pay a bribe to the first accused. It is denied that the second accused entered into the alleged agreement. The alleged money laundering as a racketeering act. It is alleged that the second accused entered into the alleged agreement with a money-laundering enterprise to disguise the payment of R250 000 to the first accused in terms of the first bribe agreement. It is denied that the 2nd accused entered into the alleged money laundering agreement. Count 3 and the alternative counts thereto are the so-called general corruption count and duplicate the alleged corrupt acts relied upon in the racketeering count.”
Zuma addresses his supporters gathered outside court:
Legal expert, Ulrich Roux says the application of former President for the recusal of state prosecutor Billy Downer in his corruption trial is a delaying tactic.
“I think it is another delaying tactic by Mr Zuma. He showed this strategy in delaying matters as much as possible. But in order for this application to succeed they will have to show that prosecutor Billy Downer has acted in an un-objective manner and biased manner. An important decision and consideration need to be made by the judge. And one will have to wait and see the weight attached to the allegations made by Zuma’s legal team.” -Additional reporting by Nonkululeko Hlophe and Vusi Makhosini