South African prosecutors drop case against Zuma

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) âÄî Prosecutors dropped their corruption case Monday against Jacob Zuma, clearing the way for him to become South Africa’s next president but leaving behind questions that could haunt the next government. Zuma, a colorful character and well-known champion of the poor, is the presidential candidate for the governing African National Congress in April 22 elections. He is almost certain to win given the party’s dominance. Hundreds of Zuma supporters reveled in the streets after prosecutors said they would not pursue âÄî now or in the future âÄî accusations Zuma accepted bribes to thwart an investigation into wrongdoing by a French arms company involved in a massive weapons deal in the late 1990s. But prosecutors said the withdrawal had nothing to do with Zuma’s guilt or innocence. They claimed to have a strong case, and said it was withdrawn because of prosecutorial misconduct. They noted that others could file civil cases, an option that may be pursued by opposition parties who decried Monday’s announcement. Zuma did not comment Monday, but scheduled a news conference for Tuesday in Durban, where he was to appear in court for the charges to be formally dropped. Reactions to the decision highlighted the issues that remain as the country’s fledgling democracy attempts to move forward. Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general, called Monday’s decision “a victory for the rule of law, decency and common sense,” and told reporters that Zuma should now be seen as free of suspicion. “There are no allegations” against Zuma, Mantashe said at ANC headquarters. “They have been withdrawn this morning by the people who laid the charges.” The presidential candidate for COPE, a recently formed political party that broke away from the ANC, countered saying prosecutors should have gone forward with the case. “We still have not heard about the merits or the demerits of the case against Mr. Zuma. The South African people want to know: Is he innocent or is he guilty?” COPE’s Mvume Dandala said. Mokotedi Mpshe, acting director of public prosecutions, said Monday that key prosecutors had abused their powers by trying to time the announcement of charges against the 66-year-old former guerrilla leader to a key ANC conference in late 2007, presumably to undermine his bid to become party president. Zuma won the leadership race at that conference, and two days later Mpshe said he had enough evidence to try Zuma. On Monday, Mpshe said he had been unaware in 2007 of attempts to manipulate the case. “An intolerable abuse of process has occurred which requires discontinuation of the prosecution,” Mpshe said at a packed news conference that was broadcast live nationwide. Mpshe’s decision came after Zuma’s legal team brought him taped phone conversations between prosecutors discussing the announcement timing. It was unclear how Zuma’s team obtained the recordings, but Mpshe said prosecutors determined they were authentic. Even before Monday’s decision, the accusations that Zuma had taken a $55,600 (500,000-rand) bribe to protect a French arms company had not appeared to hurt Zuma among his base âÄî impoverished black South Africans who embrace him as a man they believe understands their struggle. Support was not even affected by rape charges in 2006, which ended in Zuma’s acquittal. In that case, he outraged AIDS activists by testifying that he had unprotected, consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman and then took a shower in the belief that it would protect him from the virus. Monday’s news was greeted with an outpouring of joy and Zuma supporters danced through the streets of downtown Johannesburg, while car horns blared and whistles shrieked. Hundreds waved ANC flags in a downtown square, dancing and singing “Bring Me My Machine Gun,” the anti-apartheid song that has become Zuma’s trademark. “I’m very happy for the decision, hoping that this gives our president what he needs for us to go forward,” said Victress Iwabi, an ANC town councilor. “I think under Zuma people will have decent work, free and quality education, quality health care for all. And we are going to defeat crime.” Former President Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma as his deputy because of the corruption scandal, but Zuma bounced back. The Zuma-led ANC forced Mbeki to resign as national president last September. Prosecutors said Monday they had found no evidence Mbeki was behind the attempt to manipulate the Zuma case. But Zuma allies called for an investigation into the former president’s possible involvement. Mbeki had no comment, spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga said. Adam Habib, a political analyst at the University of Johannesburg, called on Zuma to “come clean with the nation” about the corruption case. “If he does not, not only does he taint the image of his own administration, but the image of his country as well,” Habib said. Neren Rau, chief executive of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said investors needed to have confidence in the rule of law in South Africa, and for that the prosecutors’ office “must be perceived as independent, above reproach and free of the perception that it offers political solutions.” ___ Associated Press writers Clare Nullis in Cape Town and Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.