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Jacob Zuma should face hundreds of corruption charges that were dropped before he became president, a court in South Africa ruled on Friday.
The decision by state prosecutors to drop 780 charges was irrational, the Pretoria High Court found, and said it should be reviewed and set aside.
The ruling is a blow to the scandal-ridden Mr Zuma and follows years of legal action by the opposition Democratic Alliance.
Reading the unanimous ruling of the three-judge bench, Judge Aubrey Ledwaba said: “Mr Zuma should face the charges as outlined in the indictment.”
The charges, including fraud, racketeering and corruption, were dropped in 2009 after state prosecutors decided there had been political interference that affected the timing of the case.
Mr Zuma, who has always denied the charges, can appeal against Friday’s judgment, experts said.
But the controversies surrounding the president are damaging the credibility of his African National Congress, which has dominated politics since the first post-apartheid election in 1994. The ruling party faces a stern test at local elections in August.
Last month, the Constitutional Court ruled the president had breached the constitution by failing to repay taxpayers’ money spent on his private Nkandla residence as recommended by the Public Protector, similar to an ombudsman. That triggered calls for him to step down from within his own party, although the ANC’s top leadership rallied around him.
It is unclear whether Friday’s ruling means that the charges will be automatically reinstated. Lawson Naidoo, head of the Council for the Advancement of the Constitution, a civil society group, said the corruption charges have been “revived and the National Prosecuting Authority will now have to decide how to deal with the docket”.
James Selfe, a senior figure in the Democratic Alliance who led the party’s legal action, said his understanding was that the ruling meant Mr Zuma was in effect “charged”.
“Whether the NPA decides to put the resources behind this to pursue it with a vigour that is needed for a successful prosecution is another matter,” Mr Selfe said. “The real implication is more political than legal – I’m not sure how much longer the African National Congress can put up with such an election liability.”
The presidency said that as the charges were formally withdrawn in 2009 “there is no pending litigation before court against President Zuma”.
“As a party to the proceedings, the president has noted the decision of the court and will give consideration to the judgment and its consequences and the remedies available in terms of our law,” the presidency said in a statement.
Judge Ledwaba described the decision to drop the charges in 2009 as irrational and was highly critical of the actions of Mokotedi Mpshe, then acting director the NPA, said Mr Mpshe “found himself under pressure and he decided to discontinue the prosecution of Mr Zuma and consequently made an irrational decision”.
Legal consensus on today's #SpyTapes decision: President Zuma is now an accused charged with corruption. But NPA not compelled to prosecute.
— Mandy Wiener (@MandyWiener) April 29, 2016
“Considering the situation in which he found himself, Mr Mpshe ignored the importance of the oath of office which demanded him to act independently and without fear or favour,” Judge Ledwaba said, reading the ruling. “If the decision had been rational and above board, why the secrecy?”
The NPA has long faced criticism that it has become politicised. The decision by prosecutors to drop the charges centred on recorded conversations known as the “spy tapes” between politicians, prosecutors and the head of the Scorpions, a disbanded investigations unit.
An NPA spokesman said. “We need to be given space to consider and reflect on the judgment and decide on the way forward.”
The charges were brought in 2007 when Mr Zuma was in the midst of a battle for the ANC’s leadership with then president Thabo Mbeki. After losing, Mr Mbeki was recalled as state president in 2008 and Mr Zuma took office after the ANC won 2009 elections.
(c) 2016 The Financial Times Ltd.
By Tanisha Heiberg
PRETORIA, April 29 (Reuters) – South Africa’s High Court ruled on Friday that a decision seven years ago to drop 783 corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma was irrational and should be reviewed, another setback for the scandal-ridden leader who faces calls for his resignation.
The decision in April 2009 to set aside the charges allowed Zuma to run for president in elections the same month.
The South African leader has been beset by scandal during his tenure. This year’s local elections pose a major risk for Zuma’s ruling African National Congress, facing a strong challenge from opponents seeking to capitalize on what they see as the president’s missteps.
National prosecutor Mokotedi Mpshe’s decision at the time was based on phone intercepts presented by Zuma’s legal team that suggested the timing of the charges in late 2007 may have been part of a political plot against him.
However, Judge Aubrey Ledwaba said Mpshe’s thinking and behaviour was irrational, especially his failure to disclose his decision to prosecutors until the moment he announced it to the nation at a news conference.
“If the decision had been rational and above board, why the secrecy?” Ledwaba said.
In and out of court for almost seven years, the Rule of Law has prevailed. No one is above the law. Jacob Zuma must have his day in court.
— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) April 29, 2016
The ruling adds pressure on Zuma, who has faced calls to quit even from within the ANC since a damning constitutional court judgment against him last month.
The three-judge bench ruling does not automatically reinstate the charges against Zuma, a decision that can only come from the prosecuting authorities. It was unclear when such a decision would be taken.
The rand hit a five-month high against the dollar after the ruling and government bonds also firmed.
“Mr. Zuma should face the charges as applied in the indictment,” Ledwaba said, summarising the unanimous ruling.
It was not immediately clear whether Zuma would appeal, but the presidency said he would weigh the judgement and its consequences, adding that Zuma faced no charges in court at present.
The ANC said the ruling would not harm the party’s image or its chances at the local elections in August.
Shaun Abrahams, head of the National Prosecuting Authority, told Reuters he was studying the ruling.
Opposition Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane, whose party brought the court application, demanded the charges against Zuma be reinstated.
“Jacob Zuma is not fit to be the president of this country,” he told reporters. “The decision that they took was irrational and we still maintain that Jacob Zuma is corrupt. Jacob Zuma must face the full might of the law. He has already violated the constitution. There is no debate about that.”
Analysts said the credibility of the president and the prosecuting authority were in question after the ruling.
“The credibility of the Presidency and the NPA are at stake due this a very far-reaching decision,” said Professor Shadrack Gutto, a law lecturer at the University of South Africa.
“For the ANC it’s a question of what to do ahead of the August elections. Is this the kind of leader they want to have as a symbol? It is going to have a negative on the ANC. Opposition parties are going to take advantage of it.”
The hundreds of corruption charges relate to a major government arms deal arranged in the late 1990s.
Zuma said last week that an investigation into the deal had found no evidence of corruption or fraud. Critics denounced the findings as a cover-up and said they would continue to campaign for justice.
Zuma, then deputy president, was linked to the deal through his former financial adviser, who was jailed for corruption. This almost torpedoed Zuma’s bid for president until the charges against him were dropped.
Earlier this month, Zuma survived an impeachment vote after the Constitutional Court said he breached the law by ignoring an order to repay some of the $16 million in state funds spent on renovating his home.
In December, he was widely criticised for changing his finance minister twice in a week, sending the rand plummeting, alarming investors and prompting warnings that South Africa’s credit rating is under threat of a downgrade to “junk” status due to policy and political upheavals and low growth.
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