A South African judge has issued an arrest warrant for former president Jacob Zuma after noticing mysterious alterations and missing information in a hospital note that claimed he was too ill to attend his trial on corruption charges.
Mr. Zuma has repeatedly claimed to be too sick to attend the long-delayed corruption trial or to give testimony at an official inquiry into state corruption, but the 77-year-old ex-president has given no explanation of his medical condition.
Mr. Zuma was forced to resign in 2018 under a cloud of allegations about widespread corruption during his nine years as president. South Africa’s economy has been severely damaged by electricity shortages that have been traced back to mismanagement and corruption at the state electricity monopoly during his government.
Mr. Zuma’s charitable foundation said he has been in Cuba for the past two weeks for “medical reasons.”
Judge Dhaya Pillay, at a court in the city of Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday, issued the arrest warrant but also ruled that the warrant will be stayed until his next scheduled court appearance on May 6, when the trial is due to resume.
Mr. Zuma’s lawyers submitted a document from a military hospital to the court, but Judge Pillay noted that it was vague and unverified, with the date altered.
Reports from the courtroom said the document used the vague term “medical condition” and was accompanied by the stamp of a military hospital, without any evidence that it was signed by a physician.
Without any clear proof that Mr. Zuma was indeed ill, the court had no choice but to issue an arrest warrant, Judge Pillay said.
The prosecutor in the trial, Billy Downer, said the hospital document was mere “hearsay” that proved nothing. He said it was a criminal offence for Mr. Zuma to evade his trial.
Many South Africans have been skeptical of the claims of illness by Mr. Zuma, who has always appeared healthy and energetic in his public appearances. They also recall the saga of Schabir Shaik, the businessman who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud and for having a corrupt relationship with Mr. Zuma – but was released on “medical parole” in 2009 after just two years in jail and was later frequently seen playing golf.
The corruption charges against Mr. Zuma – which include racketeering, fraud and money laundering – date back to a US$4.8-billion arms purchase by the South African government in 1999, when Mr. Zuma was deputy president. He is accused of receiving bribes from a French weapons supplier, funnelled through Mr. Shaik.
For the past 15 years, following Mr. Shaik’s conviction in the arms-deal scandal, Mr. Zuma has deployed a variety of legal tactics to delay his day in court. Critics have described it as the “Stalingrad defence” – a strategy of using every possible weapon to delay and quash the charges. His appeals have repeatedly been rejected by the courts.
The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, welcomed the judge’s decision to issue an arrest warrant. “We trust that this warrant sends a strong message to Mr. Zuma that his tricks to evade accountability and justice will not be tolerated,” the party said in a statement on Tuesday. “No one is above the law.”
Mr. Zuma has also repeatedly used his claims of illness to postpone a scheduled appearance at South Africa’s official inquiry into state corruption. The inquiry wants to question him in detail about corruption allegations during his presidency.
The inquiry, which began in mid-2018, has heard evidence from more than 150 witnesses and has recorded more than 27,000 pages of testimony, along with 450,000 pages of supporting evidence. It recently requested an extension to the end of this year to complete its work.
In testimony to the inquiry on Tuesday, a former head of South Africa’s state airline SAA described how he had been offered a payment of 500,000 rand (about US$34,000) from a member of the notorious Gupta business family in 2012 while Mr. Zuma’s son Duduzane was present at the meeting.
The former airline boss, Vuyisile Kona, said the purpose of the offered payment was unclear, but South African media have reported that it was a bribe offer.
Duduzane Zuma has been a business partner of the Gupta family for many years. The Gupta brothers fled from South Africa in 2018 after rumours that they would be arrested.