DURBAN, South Africa (Reuters) - Former South African president Jacob Zuma appeared in court on Friday to face corruption charges relating to a $2.5 billion arms deal, later telling a crowd he would be proven innocent in the long running case that resurfaced after his fall from power.
Zuma’s transition from “Mr. President” to “Accused Number One” in less than two months is a significant setback for the 75-year-old, whose nine years in office were marked by economic stagnation and credit downgrades.
He faces 16 charges including fraud, racketeering and money laundering.
In a procedural appearance that lasted less than 15 minutes, state prosecutors and Zuma’s lawyers asked the Durban High Court to adjourn the case until June 8 so both sides could prepare submissions. Judge Themba Sishi approved the request.
A potential trial would take several more months to prepare.
Zuma later told thousands of supporters outside court in Durban that his opponents were telling lies and the judiciary and politicians believed that he did not have rights.
“The truth will come out. What have I done?” Zuma told the cheering crowd, speaking in Zulu in his home Kwa-Zulu Natal province.
“I am innocent until proven guilty.”
Zuma denies any wrongdoing and is challenging the decision to prosecute the case, a dramatic development on a continent where political leaders are rarely held to account for their actions before the law.
The speed with which prosecutors have booked his day in court is a sign of the loss of control Zuma has suffered since his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, became head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December.
Zuma, who has never lost the ability to rouse a crowd with traditional song and dance, still retains some popular support, especially in his Zulu heartland.
Heavily armed police in riot gear lined the square outside the court, as thousands of Zuma supporters gathered to express solidarity with a leader they say is the victim of a politically motivated witchhunt.
Marchers, many clad in the distinctive yellow, green and black of the ANC, carried placards reading “Hands off Zuma” and performed the high-stepping toyi-toyi protest dance made popular in South Africa’s decades-long struggle against apartheid.
Zuma, forced to resign by the ANC last month, was at the centre of a 1990s deal to buy billions of dollars of European military hardware to upgrade South Africa’s post-apartheid armed forces.
But the deal was mired in scandal and controversy from the start, with many inside and outside the ANC questioning the spending given the massive social problems, from health to education, Nelson Mandela’s party had to address after coming to power in 1994.
The affair has cast a shadow over South African politics ever since.
Zuma was deputy president at the time. Schabir Shaikh, his former financial adviser, was found guilty and jailed in 2005 for trying to solicit bribes for Zuma from a subsidiary of French arms company Thales.
The company is facing charges in the same case.
Charges against Zuma were filed but then set aside by the National Prosecuting Authority shortly before he successfully ran for president in 2009. The charges were re-instated in 2016.
Since his election nine years ago, his opponents have fought a lengthy legal battle to have the charges reinstated. Zuma countered with his own legal challenges.
Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; additional reporting by Joe Brock, Alexander Winning and Ed Cropley; Writing by Joe Brock, Editing by William Maclean