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South African judge on Zuma's corruption case recuses himself

South Africa's former President Jacob Zuma speaks as he responds to a question from journalists during a media briefing in Johannesburg, South Africa, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.   -  
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Themba Hadebe/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.

South Africa

The judge in the corruption trial of former South African President Jacob Zuma announced Monday (Jan. 30) at a hearing that he would recuse himself from the case, risking the case going back to court.

"I have come to the conclusion that I must recuse myself from the trial. This is what the proper administration of justice, the Constitution and my conscience dictates," said Judge Piet Koen in the Pietermaritzburg court (southeast) during a televised hearing.

Jacob Zuma, 80, is accused of taking bribes from the French defense group Thales in a case that dates back more than 20 years ago. He is charged with 16 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering. Thales is also charged with corruption and money laundering.

The former head of state was not present at the technical hearing.

For months, Mr. Zuma has been lobbying for the recusal of the chief prosecutor in the trial, Billy Downer, whom he accuses of bias. Last year, Judge Koen rejected this request.

He is now concerned that this decision could lead to his own impartiality being questioned "when the question arises as to whether Mr. Zuma received a constitutionally fair trial," he said.

"If Justice Koen does not continue the trial, a new judge will have to sit," Cathy Powell, a constitutional scholar at the University of Cape Town, told AFP. The trial would then have to "start from the beginning", the lawyer fears.

Zuma's corruption trial began in May 2021, with numerous postponements and delays due to a proliferation of appeals launched by the accused.

A landmark report on rampant corruption during Jacob Zuma's nine-year presidency (2009-2018), submitted last year to President Cyril Ramaphosa, highlighted the central role of the former head of state in the systematic looting of public coffers.

Jacob Zuma, who stubbornly refused to testify before an ad hoc commission of inquiry, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. His imprisonment in July 2021 triggered an unprecedented wave of violence and looting in South Africa in a deteriorating socio-economic context.

He was released on parole after two months on medical grounds.

The next hearing in his trial has been set for April 17.

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