Tuesday, March 13, 2012

SAfrica ANC leader Zuma maintains innocence

The man expected to become South Africa's next president said Tuesday he had committed no crime, a day after officials said they were dropping a corruption case against him _ but only because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Jacob Zuma, leader of the governing African National Congress party, called the charges baseless and thanked supporters for believing in him.

"My conscience is clear," he told a news conference in Durban, where a judge formally endorsed the prosecutors' decision to drop the case. "I have not committed any crime against the state or the people of South Africa."

Zuma is the ANC's presidential candidate in April 22 elections and is almost certain to win, given the party's dominance. He has maintained he was the victim of a political conspiracy aimed at derailing his presidential ambitions.

Zuma was greeted with cheers and chants from hundreds of supporters outside the Durban courthouse where the charges were dropped. Some people climbed into trees to get a better view of him. Zuma addressed the crowd in Zulu for nearly an hour and urged them to put the matter behind them.

"We can't waste time; we need to develop the country and our people," Zuma said to applause. "This is now history. Let's go forward."

Zuma was accused of seeking bribes to thwart an investigation into wrongdoing by a French arms company involved in a massive weapons deal in the late 1990s. Prosecutors also have withdrawn charges against the company.

Seven countries and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are investigating allegations that tens of millions of dollars were paid in bribes to secure contracts in the multibillion-dollar arms deal. The amounts cited in Zuma's case were minuscule in comparison.

Prosecutors said Monday they remained convinced their case against Zuma was strong, and that they were withdrawing it only because the process was tainted. Prosecutors said they would not revive the charges in the future _ but noted individuals could file civil cases.

Some observers have said unanswered questions about the Zuma case could haunt the next government and hurt the country's image.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said Tuesday it had filed an application seeking a judicial review of the prosecutors' decision.

"Two weeks before the election, (the National Prosecuting Authority) has caved in to political pressure from the Jacob Zuma faction of the ANC, and discontinued a prosecution selectively," the party said in a statement.

Mokotedi Mpshe, acting director of public prosecutions, said Monday that key prosecutors had abused their powers in pursuing the case against the 66-year-old former guerrilla leader by trying to time an announcement of charges against him with 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 nationwide.

Mpshe's decision followed a lengthy review of taped phone conversations between prosecutors discussing the announcement timing first brought to Mpshe's attention by Zuma's legal team. It was unclear how Zuma's team obtained the recordings, but Mpshe said prosecutors determined they were authentic.

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Associated Press Writer Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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