Zuma corruption trial could put paid to leadership hopes

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Cheered on by hundreds of supporters, Jacob Zuma, South Africa's former deputy president, appeared in court yesterday to face corruption charges which could put paid to his chances of succeeding Thabo Mbeki as President.

Following his acquittal on a rape charge earlier this year, Mr Zuma took the stand in the southern city of Pietermaritzburg to defend himself against accusations of corruption stemming from a multibillion-pound South African arms deal. Mr Zuma is accused of accepting at least 1.2 million rand (£85,000) in bribes from his close friend and financial adviser Shabir Shaik and of accepting a bribe from the French arms company Thint. Both Mr Zuma and Thint have protested their innocence.

A conviction would see the charismatic leader jailed for more than 10 years, while an acquittal would restore him as the frontrunner to succeed Mr Mbeki by 2009.

Outside the court house yesterday, hundreds of jubilant supporters carried posters describing him as "our president-in-waiting" and others sharply denouncing President Mbeki.

Mr Mbeki fired Mr Zuma as South Africa's deputy president last year after another court ruled that he had maintained a "generally corrupt relationship" with Mr Shaik. Mr Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in jail after which authorities charged Mr Zuma with using him as a conduit to solicit a £50,000 bribe from Thint Holdings.

The lead prosecutor, Wim Trengrove, opened the trial yesterday by arguing for a delay to allow the state to finalise its indictment against Mr Zuma while Mr Zuma's lawyers argued for a permanent stay of prosecution, saying Mr Zuma's rights had been prejudiced by the continued postponement of the case. They also argued that evidence obtained when the offices of Mr Zuma and his lawyerss were raided last year was obtained in violation of his constitutional rights.

* Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, arrived in South Africa yesterday for a two-day visit, the first Russian head of state to visit the country. He was greeted with full military honours by Mr Mbeki and the cabinet after which the two leaders went into talks.