President Zuma in the dock?

The mother of all legal battles is set to begin in the Pietermaritzburg High Court as the state and the defence square up in the Jacob Zuma corruption trial.

Though real engagements may not begin for months—the state has already applied for a postponement until mid-2007—the early skirmishes may prove decisive in the long run.

The case will certainly not get under way on Monday. By Thursday morning, the defence had not filed its reply opposing the postponement—and Zuma’s attorney, Michael Hulley, indicated he would simultaneously file Zuma’s long-promised application to have the charges set aside.

This is likely to be a massive application based on alleged infringements of Zuma’s rights to fair treatment, and the state will require weeks to respond.

Logically, this application should be dealt with before the case starts.
This would inevitably lead to a postponement of the trial proper, even if the bid to quash the charges fails.

Monday is likely to feature little more than argument about the sequence and timing of the next steps. The day is likely to be mainly a public relations opportunity for Zuma.

Zuma backers, including the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions and the African National Congress Youth League, have promised a massive show of support for the ANC deputy president.

Despite the defence’s expressed opposition to a postponement—and threats from Zuma’s supporters to protest against such a move—delays probably benefit Zuma’s overall strategy.

He would far rather go into next year’s ANC leadership battle with the courts—and the public—preoccupied with arguments about how the National Prosecuting Authority infringed his rights than faced with substantial testimony on his alleged corruption.

Already the youth league has demanded the conference proceed whether or not Zuma is on trial, and the call of “innocent until proven guilty” is likely to be irresistible if the case is still bogged down in technical delays.

If Zuma becomes ANC president before the full trial is under way, this will put immense pressure on the prosecuting authorities.

And there are many opportunities to drag things out. The application to set aside the charges is certain to raise constitutional issues such as the right to a fair trial and might go right to the Constitutional Court.

Also, the state has not yet been able to obtain crucial documents—in legally admissible form—that were central to the Shaik trial. These were seized in 2001 in Mauritius during searches of the premises of Zuma’s co-accused, French arms company Thales.

In the Shaik case, the defence agreed to accept certified copies, as the Mauritian authorities retained the originals. This time, the defence has not been so accommodating and the state will have to apply to the trial judge for an order requesting assistance from the Mauritian authorities. That will depend on yet another case, to be fought in the Mauritian Supreme Court.

Other crucial evidence seized during the Zuma raids is also held up by appeals in the local courts over the searches’ legality. The state hopes the defence will agree that its admissibility be decided by the trial court, but this is optimistic.

Zuma’s 2000 diary, discovered in electronic form during searches at the Union Buildings, has still not been accessed by the prosecution. The Presidency claims the material is secret and the NPA expects to launch a legal application to study its contents.

The diary could shed light on the date and purpose of the meeting between Shaik, Zuma and Thales executive Alain Thetard, which gave rise to the notorious “encrypted fax”, which suggested that Zuma requested a R500 000 a year bribe.

Zuma’s debt escalates to an estimated R3,8m

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