Ex-South African leader’s corruption trial date set as he fights another case to run for election

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Former South African President Jacob Zuma will go on trial for alleged corruption next April, four years after he was formally charged with taking bribes in connection with a multi-billion-dollar arms deal and 20 years after he was first implicated, prosecutors said Thursday.

Zuma is charged with multiple counts of corruption as well as racketeering, fraud, tax evasion and money laundering over a huge deal the South African government signed to revamp its armed forces in 1999. Zuma is accused of taking bribes from French arms company Thales, then named Thomson-CSF, and a subcontractor in the deal.

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The arms deal became one of South Africa’s biggest political scandals and was clouded in corruption allegations.

Zuma pleaded not guilty to the charges at a hearing in 2021 that was supposed to mark the start of his trial, but it has been subject to long delays after Zuma launched appeals asking for the judge and the prosecutor to be removed from the case, alleging they were personally biased against him. The original trial judge recused himself but Zuma’s attempt to remove the prosecutor was rejected.

Prosecutors said the trial would now begin on April 14 next year, with a pre-trial hearing set for this August. Thales is a co-defendant in the case and has also pleaded not guilty.

“We are hoping that there are no hurdles that we will have to navigate now and that, finally, the matter will proceed,” Mthunzi Mhaga, spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority, told South African media. He said Zuma had engaged in “delaying tactics.”

The charges against Zuma relate to a period between 1995 and 2005, before he became president. During that time, he was an influential politician on the rise and later the deputy president of South Africa. He is accused of receiving bribes in return for giving the deal political protection and ensuring it went through despite questions over it.

Zuma was fired as deputy president in 2005 after his financial adviser, who is alleged to have been the fixer for the bribes, was convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison.

Zuma was served with a preliminary indictment in 2005 but the charges were dropped and reinstated multiple times over the years.

Zuma made a dramatic political comeback to become president of South Africa in 2009. He resigned as leader of Africa’s most developed country in 2018 because of separate corruption allegations.

If Zuma is convicted of the charges in the arms deal trial, he faces a possible sentence of between 15 years and life in prison. The 82-year-old served part of a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court in 2021 for refusing to testify at a corruption inquiry that was not related to his trial.

Zuma has since made yet another political return, this time as the leader of a new political party, and is involved in another court case over whether he’s eligible to run as a candidate in a national election this month. The national election body says he is ineligible because of his criminal conviction for contempt.

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