South Africa


State ready for graft trial while Zuma plays the legal appeal game

State ready for graft trial while Zuma plays the legal appeal game
Former President Jacob Zuma appears in the Pietermaritzburg court on 15 October, 2019. Photo: SUPPLIED

The state is pushing for an early as possible date for the graft trial of Jacob Zuma and French arms manufacturer Thales, even though Zuma’s legal team said on Tuesday that the former president would be applying to appeal the denial of his stay of prosecution.

The state is really interested in getting this trial running as soon as practically possible, which is at the earliest possible date next year,” veteran state prosecutor Advocate Billy Downer told the Pietermaritzburg High Court.

On Friday, judges Jerome Mnguni, Esther Steyn and Thoba Poyo-Dlwati dismissed the stay of prosecution applications made by Zuma and Thales, with costs.

Tuesday had been set down as a provisional date for the commencement of the criminal trial against both parties.

As we have said from the beginning, from the state’s side, when this matter was put down on the high court roll, the state is ready for trial – and that remains the case,” said Downer.

The first available trial date on the court roll is Monday 13 April 2020.

While the state remained “ready”, for trial, there were “a number of practical things” that had to be ironed out, added Downer, including the applications to overturn the ruling of the permanent stay decision.

We can tell your Ladyship {Justice Sharmaine Balton} now that the state will be opposing such applications, as they are matters that could be determined by the trial court, as [the accused] have been told by various courts… and of course we don’t think there will be reasonable prospects of success….”

Downer said all of the parties had discussed the issues with the Judge President and had agreed on a time table.

Applications to appeal the stay of prosecution denials had to be filed by November 1, and had to be sought from a full court.

Former President Jacob Zuma appears briefly at the Pietermaritzburg High Court in connection with his fraud and corruption case, 15 October 2019. (Photo: Desiree Erasmus)

Arguments would take place on 22 November and it was hoped that “soon” after deliberation, the court would give its judgment.

The earliest available date for the continuation of the pre-trial process was 4 February, 2020, a date which all parties had agreed to.

By that time, depending on the outcome of the leave to appeal, my learned friends would have considered their position and made whatever further applications they deem necessary to whatever courts they see necessary, whether it be the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) or the Constitutional Court or both,” he said.

By the fourth of February, we will have a good idea of where we are, and the state is still pushing for the earliest possible trial date that could accommodate everyone.”

While the state wanted the trial set down for April 2020, this could only be determined at the February pre-trial.

A formal process of pre-trial minutes had also been set into motion “immediately” said Downer.

Also, meetings would take place between all parties so that practical issues such as the docket, availability of witnesses, admissions and so on could be addressed, to determine how long the trial would be set down for.

The trial is linked to the country’s R60-billion arms deal, which was concluded in 1999.

Downer was part of the original team that prosecuted Zuma’s then financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, in 2005.

Shaik was eventually found guilty of two counts of corruption and one of fraud in 2009. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but released on medical parole in 2009.

The state contends that Thales bribed Zuma via Shaik in order to protect the multi-national from a probe into the arms deal, after the corporation had secured a R2.6-billion contract to supply combat systems to the South African navy.

According to the state, Thales paid Zuma, deputy president at the time, R500,000 a year for political protection.

Acting for Zuma, Advocate Thabani Masuku told the court on Tuesday, while gently rocking back and forth, that his client had been ready to face trial for over 14 years.

We are heartened to know that the state is finally ready to start the trial and that we can start formally to deal with the issues that relate to the trial.”

Masuku said Zuma would, however, be exercising “the full extent of his constitutional rights”, including the right to appeal the “unfavourable decision” made in the permanent stay.

Advocate Anton Katz, acting for Thales, said that there was a “wrinkle” for his team given that they did not yet have “firm instructions” on a possible application for leave to appeal the permanent stay outcome.

Nevertheless, he said, should a decision be taken to appeal, papers would be filed by the agreed upon date of 1 November. DM


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