Monday, May 08, 2006
Former South African Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, Acquitted on Rape Charges
Mon May 8, 2006 9:39 AM EDT
By Manoah Esipisu and Rebecca Harrison
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African judge on Monday acquitted former Deputy President Jacob Zuma on charges he raped an HIV-positive family friend, keeping alive the political hopes of a man until recently seen as the country's next president.
"I find that consensual sex took place between the complainant and the accused," Judge Willem van der Merwe told a packed courtroom as more than 2,000 Zuma supporters massed outside the Johannesburg courthouse exploded in wild cheers.
Zuma's rape trial has fanned tensions in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), where he remains a widely popular figure and was until recently seen as the frontrunner to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.
Despite his broad appeal, political analysts say he has been badly wounded by the rape trial.
The 64-year-old anti-apartheid veteran had pleaded not guilty to raping his accuser at his Johannesburg home last November. But his lawyers said he did have consensual sex with the woman, a 31-year-old AIDS activist.
Conviction for rape could have brought a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
Van der Merwe, who under South Africa's non-jury trial system decided the case, said the state had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zuma had intended rape, and questioned the credibility of the complainant.
"It would be foolish for any man with a police guard at hand and his daughter not far away to surprise a sleeping woman and to start raping her without knowing whether she would shout the roof off," he said.
The rape trial, the most sensational case in South Africa since the end of white rule in 1994, has transfixed the public with graphic sexual testimony and rival protests by Zuma supporters and women's rights groups.
Defense lawyers sought to undermine the credibility of the accuser -- who under South African law cannot be named -- by delving into her sexual history and depicting her relationship with Zuma as flirtatious.
Zuma, an ethnic Zulu, was hit with the rape charge following a separate graft scandal last year which prompted Mbeki to sack him as the country's second-highest official.
He is due to go on trial in July on the corruption charges, which he has denied and described as part of a shadowy political plot by his enemies in the ANC to end his presidential hopes.
Political analysts said the rape case has done serious political damage to Zuma, particularly because he conceded that he had unprotected sex with the woman despite knowing that she was infected with HIV.
AIDS activists criticized Zuma -- who said he took a shower to prevent possible HIV infection -- as spreading misinformation about the disease in South Africa. The country is at the heart of Africa's HIV/AIDS pandemic with some 5 million of its 45 million people infected.
But Zuma supporters remained undaunted, a sign of the power of his folksy grassroots appeal when contrasted with the chillier technocratic image often projected by Mbeki.
"He is our hero we're going to support Zuma until he becomes president," said Patrick Seiphalo, who along with other cheering Zuma supporters thronged through central Johannesburg after the verdict.
S Africa's Zuma cleared of rape
Former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma has been acquitted of raping a 31-year-old family friend.
There were jubilant scenes in central Johannesburg as Mr Zuma addressed the crowd, and accused the media of finding him guilty before the trial started.
Mr Zuma was once seen as a future president and remains popular, but analysts say evidence aired in the rape trial has badly damaged his reputation.
He still faces a separate charge of corruption, to be heard in July.
Delivering judgement, Judge Willem van der Merwe said the state had not proven the case beyond reasonable doubt.
He also referred to evidence given by the defence, suggesting that the complainant had a history of making false accusations of rape.
"The complainant was inclined to accuse men of raping her or attempting to rape her," the judge concluded.
Mr Zuma, who played a key role in the fight against apartheid, admitted having had sex with the woman, but insisted it was consensual.
Referring to their contradictory versions of the events of the night of 2 November 2005, the judge declared "the probabilities favour the accused's version".
He said Mr Zuma would not have risked forcing himself on the woman when his own daughter was in the house and police were on guard outside, who would have heard the accused if she had cried out.
Because of public interest in the case, Judge van der Merwe allowed his four-hour ruling to be broadcast live on radio and television.
The judge began his ruling by expressing his regret that "some pressure groups and individuals found the accused guilty and some found him not guilty" while the trial was under way.
A significant police presence, along with rolls of razor wire and police trucks, had moved in to cordon off the court house overnight.
A crowd of several hundred supporters was present as proceedings began, but had grown to more than 1,000 by midday.
Women demonstrating against rape outside the court wore "kangas", or wrap-around cloths, in protest at the defence's argument that the complainant had provoked the sexual encounter by wearing such a cloth while a guest at Mr Zuma's house.
The woman demonstrators left quietly as the judge approached his verdict, and the much larger crowd of Mr Zuma's supporters became rowdy.
Mr Zuma addressed the crowd in nearby Beyers Naude Square, with angry words for the media and political analysts who have criticised him.
"A person who is charged remains innocent until proven otherwise - this is one of the golden rules of our constitution but the press broke this rule," he said.
"Today the bad dreams have evaporated."
While deputy president, Mr Zuma was also head of South Africa's National Aids Council and the Moral Regeneration Movement.
His views on HIV prevention, which were aired in court, have shocked Aids activists.
Mr Zuma said he had had a shower after sex to prevent HIV transmission and believed that a healthy man was unlikely to catch HIV from a woman.
Judge van der Merwe said such behaviour was "totally unacceptable", reports the AFP news agency.
"This trial has really damaged his reputation, his credibility," political analyst William Mervin Gumede told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.
In July, he faces another trial on the corruption charges that led to his dismissal as deputy president last year. He denies the charges.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/05/08 14:32:00 GMT
Wounded Zuma wins first round
Jacob Zuma may have emerged victorious from round one of his battle with South Africa's criminal justice system but his ambitions of becoming president have been damaged, probably fatally.
He has been acquitted of the rape charge brought against him late last year, but he still faces trial on the corruption charge that has been under investigation since June.
The corruption charge prompted President Thabo Mbeki to fire Mr Zuma as the national deputy president in June.
Later, allegations of rape led to the decision by the ANC's National Working Committee to suspend Mr Zuma from his party duties, though he formally retains the title of ANC deputy president.
Only the party congress has the power to strip Mr Zuma of this title.
Now that he has been cleared of rape, Mr Zuma and his supporters will feel vindicated in their belief that he is the victim of a political conspiracy.
This will increase the pressure on the ANC from the pro-Zuma faction, yet the party dare not reinstate a man who still has a corruption charge pending against him.
In any case, the acquittal does not change the fact that rape trial has done tremendous damage to Mr Zuma.
In the government and at high levels of the ANC, as well as among the wider South African public, people are shocked by the behaviour that Mr Zuma admitted to in court.
Few South Africans would consider it acceptable to have sex with the daughter of a close and long-standing friend - even if it was consensual - and most would find it hard to maintain any respect for a political leader who did so.
Mr Zuma's admission that he had not used a condom, and had then taken a shower after having sex with a woman who knew to be HIV-positive, in order to reduce the risk of infection, prompted outrage from Aids activists and a flood of satire from the country's cartoonists.
As the accuser delivered her testimony about the events of the evening of 2 November 2005, the public was part appalled, part intrigued by the graphic description of what, according to her version, sounded like a rape by a man who was both arrogant and lacking in self-control.
But as the trial drew on, South Africans became increasingly doubtful about whether the prosecution would secure a conviction.
Testifying in his own defence, Mr Zuma presented a version of events that had little in common with the testimony of his accuser.
Most crucially, he said the two had had sex in his own bedroom, and not in the guest room at his home as the accuser claimed.
Combined with questions about the complainant's sexual history and psychological condition, the defence strategy seemed to be to paint a picture of a woman who was either deluded, or a persistent liar.
With such wide divergence on the details, and no witnesses available to corroborate either version of events, the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the woman had not consented to sex.
Many South Africans are likely to remain unconvinced by Mr Zuma's defence - particularly those who believe that the current sexual violence legislation, which is soon to be changed, puts rape complainants at an unfair disadvantage.
The corruption trial is scheduled to begin in July - until that trial is over, the ANC will remain in the same uncomfortable position as it has been in for nearly a year: the position of having a deputy leader who commands the support of a vocal faction within the party, but whose reputation has taken a battering and who could yet turn out to be a criminal.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/05/08 13:14:13 GMT