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South Africa’s Zuma fails to delay arms deal graft trial

South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma on Wednesday lost a new bid to delay his corruption trial over a 1990s arms deal involving French defence giant Thales.

The ruling means Zuma’s trial remains on track to resume on April 11.

Zuma had sought to have lead prosecutor Billy Downer dropped from the case, accusing him of bias.

High Court judge Piet Koen last year rejected that request, and on Wednesday denied Zuma’s leave to appeal that ruling.

His appeal “should not be entertained at this stage of the trial”, Koen said, adding that an appeal now would “invariably result in delays and hence drawn-out trials to the detriment not only to the accused but to any co-accused, and also to the public”.

Koen also insisted the prosecutor had no conflicts of interest, calling Zuma’s claims “frivolous, absurd… and devoid of any prospects of success”.

Zuma faces 16 counts of fraud, graft and racketeering related to the purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and equipment from five European arms firms.

He is accused of taking bribes from French defence giant Thales, which has also been charged with corruption and money laundering.

Both have denied any wrongdoing.

The trial started in May 2021 after repeated postponements as Zuma’s legal team battled to have the charges dropped.

Zuma was president from 2009 to 2018, but was forced to step down by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as graft scandals surrounding his government brewed into a political storm.

Last year he was given a 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court after refusing to testify before a panel probing financial sleaze and cronyism that proliferated under his presidency.

His jailing sparked riots that descended into looting and left more than 350 dead in the worst violence since the advent of South Africa’s democracy.

He was released on health grounds two months into the term.