- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

JOHANNESBURG — A judge yesterday acquitted former Deputy President Jacob Zuma of rape in a politically charged trial that left in tatters his aspirations to lead South Africa.

The verdict set off celebrations among Mr. Zuma’s supporters in the courtroom and across the street from the courthouse, where about 5,000 people danced and cheered in the street. Mr. Zuma remained seated, showing no reaction.

Later, speaking in Zulu to his supporters on the streets of downtown Johannesburg, Mr. Zuma thanked them for their loyalty and accused the South African press of prejudging him.

Judge Willem van der Merwe, in a verdict broadcast live on television and radio, found Mr. Zuma and the woman had consensual sex at his home in November, that his accuser’s testimony was not credible and that she had lied and brought a false claim of rape against him.

The woman, a 31-year-old HIV-positive AIDS activist and family friend, accused Mr. Zuma of raping her at his Johannesburg home. Mr. Zuma acknowledged having sex with the woman, but insisted it was consensual.

The trial was the most politically charged since the end of apartheid. The testimony riveted the nation, focusing attention on the high rate of rape and raising questions about the ability to prevent the spread of AIDS in a country with 6 million HIV-infected people — the highest number of any country.

Mr. Zuma, who still faces a corruption trial in July, maintained his innocence on both the rape and corruption charges, saying the accusations resulted from a political conspiracy by unidentified people within the ruling party to derail his bid to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.

Mr. Zuma, who was fired as deputy president by Mr. Mbeki after the corruption charges were leveled, offered no evidence to support his claim of a conspiracy. But his acquittal reinforced the feeling among his ardent supporters that one existed.

The woman has testified she did not fight Mr. Zuma or scream for help because she “froze” when faced with advances from the man she regarded as a father. She said she would never have agreed to having sex without a condom.

Before the rape and corruption charges surfaced, Mr. Zuma was widely seen as the man most likely to succeed Mr. Mbeki.

But his own testimony in the trial raised questions about his attitude toward women, his understanding of AIDS, and ultimately whether he has the judgment to lead the country.

Mr. Zuma testified that the woman, whom he has known since she was a child, had encouraged him with cell-phone messages and flirtatious behavior and did not resist his advances.

As a former head of the South African National AIDS Council, Mr. Zuma shocked many by arguing against scientific evidence that there was little danger of him contracting HIV from unprotected sex, and that his taking a shower after intercourse reduced the risk of transmission.

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