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Ramaphosa welcomes Zuma's release as critics slam 'political connections'

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Sumaya Hisham/AP

South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday welcomed the release on medical parole of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, a decision taken just days before the resumption of the corruption trial of the former head of state that has provoked the anger of the opposition.

"We welcome this" and "wish him a speedy recovery as he returns home to his loved ones," Ramaphosa said in a televised press briefing after a meeting of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Zuma, 79, who has been jailed since July 8 for contempt of court, has been hospitalized for the past month - for undisclosed reasons - outside the prison where he began serving a 15-month sentence.

He was convicted of repeatedly refusing to appear before a commission investigating state corruption during his presidency (2009-2018).

On Sunday, prison authorities announced that the ex-president could return home from hospital but was likely to have to perform community service.

The announcement, which coincided with a summit meeting of the ANC, where Jacob Zuma still has many supporters, is "extremely suspicious," John Steenhuisen of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) told AFP. "This decision is political, not medical," he said.

Cyril Ramaphosa has made the fight against corruption a key issue, especially within the ANC. But the head of state has difficulty establishing his authority within the party, caught up in a war of factions.

This latest twist in Mr. Zuma's legal travails proves that "when you have political connections, prison is not the place for you," says Mmusi Maimane of the advocacy group One South Africa.

Opposition parties and groups are demanding that the authorities publicly disclose the steps in the process that led to his release on parole.

The circumstances in which this decision was taken "are not only deeply suspicious but do not comply with the procedure laid down by law," the De Klerk Foundation said in a statement.

According to a prison source, the decision was based on medical advice that Zuma's health "requires serious attention.

For the opposition group ActionSA, it is rather the result of "a criminal justice system that treats the most powerful with gloves and allows them to escape justice.

Zuma's corruption trial is due to resume on Thursday. "It would not be surprising if this medical parole is now a pretext to say he is not fit to stand trial," Naidoo said.

In the 20-year-old case, the former president is accused of taking bribes from the French arms giant Thales, which is also charged with corruption and money laundering. He faces 16 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering.

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