South Africa's dismissed deputy president charged with rape

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South Africa's dismissed deputy president was charged with rape today in a case that could end the political career of a man who once seemed certain to lead the continent's economic and diplomatic powerhouse.

Jacob Zuma, who remains No. 2 of the governing African National Congress despite also facing corruption charges, maintained his innocence today. But he said he was suspending participation in his party's leadership structures for the duration of the trial.

Zuma appeared briefly in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court at a special early morning session and was released on 20,000 rands bail (US$3,075), the National Prosecuting Authority said in a statement. Trial was set for 13 February. No details of the case were released.

Reports that Zuma allegedly raped a family friend surfaced in local newspapers last month. Zuma said the intense media speculation had prejudiced his chances for a fair trial.

"I wish to state clearly that I am innocent of these charges," Zuma said in a statement. "I regard these allegations against me very seriously as I abhor any form of abuse against women."

He said he had informed ANC Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe of his decision not attend leadership meetings but would retain his title of party deputy president.

The party, which has governed since apartheid's end in 1994, released a brief statement saying it noted the charges and would comment fully later in the day.

Zuma's supporters maintain the rape and corruption charges are part of a smear campaign to erode his enduring popularity within the ANC and its trade union allies, and dash any hopes of his succeeding Mbeki when he finishes his second term in 2009.

Mbeki fired Zuma from his government position in June after he was charged with corruption linked to the conviction of his friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik.

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