/ 15 August 2008

Hard for Zuma to find a date

ANC president Jacob Zuma’s Stalingrad approach of ongoing legal battles to prevent the start of his trial for corruption may come to a halt this Friday when Judge Chris Nicholson will be asked by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to fix permanent dates for the hearings.

Over a week ago during a Pietermaritzburg High Court hearing, Nicholson asked the NPA and Zuma’s legal team to agree on a date by which the pre-trial applications would be concluded. Unsurprisingly they have failed to do so, since the state wants to get Zuma in the dock as soon as possible and he wants to avoid it. The NPA will now ask Nicholson to intervene.

Underlying the dispute are different interpretations about when the trial actually starts, or started. Zuma’s legal team argue that it is his right to exhaust every possible legal avenue before his criminal trial commences. The state argues that the trial process has now started, and that any appeals against any of the interlocutory judgements should occur at the end of the process.

Nicholson’s decision on Friday will determine when Zuma is likely to go on trial.

If Nicholson accedes to the state’s request for all pre-trial applications to be finalised before the end of 2008 — and Zuma doesn’t succeed in these applications — then Zuma’s trial is likely to start either in late January or in April. If, as expected, the election takes place in April, Zuma could be on trial, convicted, or acquitted on voting day.

Zuma’s legal team wants to convince Nicholson that the proper trial has not yet commenced and that they are allowed to appeal every application before it does so. This could keep their man out of the dock until after the elections.

If Nicholson rules against Zuma in either of the current pre-trial applications to stop the trial, a request for the judge’s recusal might also be on the cards.

Zuma’s supporters are punting for a ”political solution” opposed to a ”legal solution” for Zuma’s problems. This includes an amnesty for his alleged sins or, more likely, if Zuma becomes president, the introduction of legislation to prevent the NPA from charging a sitting president.

To add to the complications, The Star reported on Wednesday that Zuma’s legal team has indicated it is experiencing problems with the settlement of his legal bills by the presidency.

It is quite common for defence teams to withdraw from cases if they are not paid. If this happens with Zuma, he will have to apply for a postponement of his trial pending attempts to raise funds and rehire his lawyers or appoint a new legal team that will have to be briefed from scratch.

The NPA will oppose any attempts by Zuma to further prolong his trial when they go to court on Friday. November 25 has already been set as the date on which Thint’s application for a permanent stay of the prosecution will be heard, but Zuma’s senior counsel, Kemp J Kemp, indicated that he is not available on that day.