By Paul Simao
JOHANNESBURG – A South African judge on Wednesday refused to dismiss a rape case against former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, a fresh blow for the onetime presidential frontrunner now fighting separate sex and graft scandals.
igh Court Judge Willem van der Merwe, ruling on a mid-trial defence bid to have the rape case dismissed due to lack of evidence, said the trial would continue because the charges may yet be proven.
“The accused is therefore not entitled to a discharge,” van der Merwe told a packed courtroom in downtown Johannesburg.
Once seen as the leading candidate to succeed President Thabo Mbeki when his term expires in 2009, the 63-year-old Zuma was sacked last year amid a corruption scandal and later charged with rape by a 31-year-old AIDS activist who was a longtime family friend.
Van der Merwe said Zuma’s defence team, led by lawyer Kemp J. Kemp, had failed to demonstrate that the prosecution would be unable to prove that Zuma had intended rape when he had sex with his accuser at his Johannesburg home last November.
“Mr Kemp made a detailed analysis of the evidence so far and the accused is entitled to hear how I evaluate the evidence, which I will do at the appropriate time,” he said.
Kemp and his colleagues declined to comment on the ruling as they left the court. The defence is scheduled to begin presenting its case on Monday — launching a process which may see Zuma himself take the stand.
In a two-line statement, lead prosecutor Charin de Beer said, “We have always believed that we have a provable case, and we are indeed prepared for the next phase of the trial.”
The ruling marks another setback for Zuma, who still faces a high profile corruption trial later this year that could pound the final nail into his political coffin.
Zuma, who remains deputy president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), has said the graft charges against him are part of a plot by his enemies to derail his presidential hopes, fanning political tensions within the party.
He has also rejected the rape charge. He admits to having sex with his accuser but says it was consensual.
Defence lawyers have sought to discredit his accuser, who under South African law cannot be named, by detailing episodes of her sexual history and depicting her encounter with Zuma as one of mutual flirtation that ended in sex.
The woman herself testified that she was too frightened to resist Zuma’s advances, but under cross-examination conceded that it was possible he believed she had agreed to sex.
The fact that Zuma knew the woman was HIV-positive but nevertheless had sex with her without a condom has also raised eyebrows in South Africa, which has the world’s highest AIDS caseload with an estimated 5 million people carrying the virus.
Van der Merwe, who took over the case after three other judges withdrew, will eventually be asked to determine Zuma’s guilt or innocence under South Africa’s system of non-jury trials. A guilty verdict could bring up to 15 years in jail.
The trial has attracted large numbers of Zuma supporters who have engaged in verbal sparring with smaller groups of women’s rights activists seeking to highlight South Africa’s dismal record on prosecuting rapes.
Buti Manamela, national secretary of the Young Communist League, told several hundred people outside the court that those protesting against Zuma belonged to “Mickey Mouse makeshift women’s organizations.”
Women’s groups, however, hailed the continuation of the rape trial as a victory for justice.
“It sends a strong message to anyone who has been raped that coming out and reporting rape is the right thing,” said Catherine Nykator of the One in Nine campaign, whose name reflects the estimate that only one in nine South African women who are raped actually report the crime. — Reuter