The long-running corruption trial of South Africa’s jailed ex-president Jacob Zuma was due to resume online on Monday, even as violence swept the nation after his imprisonment in an unrelated case.
Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering related to the 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms when he was deputy president.
He is accused of taking bribes from one of the companies, French defense entity Thales, which has been charged with corruption and money laundering.
The trial started in May after numerous postponements and delays, as Zuma’s legal team worked fervently to have the charges dropped.
Zuma, 79, who appeared in person for the opening, proclaimed his innocence.
Thales also pleaded not guilty, and the next hearing was set for Monday.
On June 29, Zuma was separately found guilty of contempt of South Africa’s top court for snubbing graft investigators probing his time as president. He was jailed a week later.
South Africa was then plunged into chaos, with looting and rioting erupting in Zuma’s home region KwaZulu-Natal as well as Gauteng province, claiming more than 200 lives.
The unrest was widely seen as at least partially in response to Zuma’s imprisonment.
Monday’s hearing, which will be held online, could reignite tensions that had eased by the weekend, analysts warn.
“People will be watching the behaviour of judges,” said Sipho Seepe, a fellow of the University of Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal.
“If they feel justice is not done, they will protest.”
Monday’s hearing will focus on an application by Zuma’s legal team for chief prosecutor Billy Downer to recuse himself from the case over claims he leaked information to the media.
The National Prosecuting Authority said it would “vigorously” oppose the application.
Despite the digital staging of the hearing, Zuma supporters are likely to gather in front of the Pietermaritzburg High Court as they have for past hearings.
Zuma’s lawyers claim the virtual format is unconstitutional and have applied for the trial to be adjourned.
His foundation confirmed on Twitter late on Sunday that the ex-president would attend Monday’s hearing online “for the postponement application of his trial”.
Zuma and his backers have repeatedly dismissed scrutiny of the ex-president’s conduct as politically motivated and warned his jailing would spark unrest.
But they deny being behind the recent turmoil.
Zuma, once called the “Teflon president”, is meanwhile seeking to overturn his 15-month jail sentence.
He was arrested for disobeying a Constitutional Court order to give evidence before a judicial panel probing corruption during his presidency.