Former president Jacob Zuma. File photo: VELI NHLAPO
Former president Jacob Zuma. File photo: VELI NHLAPO

Former president Jacob Zuma will soon learn the format of his next appearance in the arms deal corruption trial, and it is likely that if things do not go his way, he will object.

On Wednesday, Judge Piet Koen will tell parties whether the matter will proceed virtually or in person next week. Zuma maintains it is illegal for him to appear virtually from Estcourt prison.

The politician has served almost one month of a 15-month sentence for contempt of a Constitutional Court order. Zuma began his term behind bars in the early hours of July 8. 

Days later he appeared virtually in court via video link from prison, to try to seek a postponement in his ongoing trial over alleged corruption, fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and racketeering relating to the arms deal of the 1990s.

This week, judge Piet Koen received input from Zuma and the state on the format of the sitting. In a two-page submission filed on Monday, Zuma told the court there was “no legal justification” for virtual proceedings in his criminal trial.

To do so would be unconstitutional and illegal, irrespective of the situation in a particular case,” he said. Zuma maintains that because the trial has begun he must appear in court in person.

The matter set down for next week is Zuma's shoehorn application for state prosecutor Billy Downer's recusal from the case. Zuma says this trial within a trial is a specialised and unique process, which must be handled seamlessly.

He has told the court he wants to scrutinise Koen and Downer in real time. He has told the court close relatives and supporters who want to attend proceedings have no digital access or TV.

“In any event, we are now at level 3, the unrest has subsided and the courts are functioning as before,” he adds. Zuma mentioned the prospect of using an interpreter, a hint he may intend to address Koen in isiZulu.

Citing comments from two US judges, Zuma argued his constitutional right to a fair trial would be prejudiced in virtual proceedings. He raised US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia's doubts virtual confrontation were adequate means of protecting certain rights.

Zuma repeated US federal judge Nancy Gertner’s warning to use technology with caution “lest we begin the practice [of] virtual justice”. She made the comment in 1998.

Advocate Wim Trengove on behalf the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was adamant the special plea must proceed either virtually or in-person on Tuesday, August 10.

He said security services told the NPA “all reasonable steps” would be taken to ensure it proceeded peacefully. “They have not given any assurance they will succeed. Supporters of the first accused are presently being mobilised on social media to gather in their numbers in Pietermaritzburg on 10 August,” he said.

Trengove cited the rate of Covid-19 infections in KwaZulu-Natal. the provincial health department reported 981 new cases on Tuesday. In the last week up to Monday, August 1 the average daily infection rate in the province was 1,871 cases.

“There is no good reason not to opt for a virtual hearing of the oral argument on 10 August and to assume the risks of an in-person hearing,” insisted Trengove.

He suggested it was premature to determine what format should be used if the need for oral evidence arose in the special plea. It is expected Koen will notify Zuma and the NPA in writing what will be the format for next week’s proceedings.

Should Zuma’s plea for Downer's recusal succeed, he has told the court he will then motivate for acquittal. This would mean all charges against Zuma would be dropped, and he could not be charged in the future for the same alleged crimes.

Koen will hear submissions on Downer’s recusal over four days next week.


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