- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2008

PIETERMARITZBURG, South Africa | A judge Friday threw out fraud and corruption charges against African National Congress President Jacob Zuma, effectively clearing the way for the 66-year-old former freedom fighter to become the country’s next president.

Judge Chris Nicholson’s ruling included biting criticism of prosecutors and President Thabo Mbeki’s administration, saying he agreed with Mr. Zuma that he was the victim of a political plot.

“It is a victory for democracy,” a triumphant Mr. Zuma declared to thousands of supporters singing and dancing outside the courtroom.

“It is a victory for our justice system,” he said before yielding to pleas from the crowd to sing his trademark anti-apartheid song, “Bring Me My Machine Gun.”

Mr. Zuma was initially charged in 2005, but that case was dismissed on a technicality in 2006. He was charged again in December 2007, just days after ousting Mr. Mbeki as ANC president, with racketeering, corruption, money laundering and fraud related to a multibillion-dollar government arms deal in the late 1990s.

Judge Nicholson upheld Mr. Zuma’s complaints that Mr. Zuma should have been consulted before the National Prosecuting Authority decided to resurrect the charges against him in December and indicated that the timing was apparently the result of political pressure from above.

The entire episode appears to have formed part of “some great political contest or game,” Judge Nicholson said.

As head of the governing party, Mr. Zuma is set to run for president next year when Mr. Mbeki’s second and last term ends, and is all but certain to win, given the ANC’s political dominance.

Mr. Zuma, the son of a maid and who had no formal schooling, is hugely popular among poor South Africans who feel alienated by Mr. Mbeki’s intellectual aloofness and are tired of waiting for their living conditions to improve 14 years after the end of apartheid.

Judge Nicholson cautioned that his ruling did not touch on guilt or innocence, and said prosecutors could file charges again once they had met the requirement of consulting with Mr. Zuma.

The National Prosecuting Authority, though, will come under huge pressure to drop the case. Parliament is pushing through legislation to scrap its elite investigating unit, the Scorpions, in response to ANC anger over what its members see as the Scorpions’ persecution of Mr. Zuma.

Judge Nicholson described as “unfair and unjust” Mr. Mbeki’s dismissal of Mr. Zuma as his deputy in 2005 after a court sentenced a close associate of Mr. Zuma’s to 15 years in jail for arranging for a French arms company to bribe Mr. Zuma to shield it from corruption investigations.

The corruption case was not Mr. Zuma’s only recent legal entanglement. He was acquitted of a rape charge in 2006, but only after admitting in court that he knowingly had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and showered afterward as he thought it would reduce the risk of infection.

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