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Judge Recuses Himself in Zuma Trial, Case Postponed

The trial of former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma got off to a dramatic start Monday as the trial judge in the rape case recused himself from proceedings at the request of the defense. The trial has been postponed to Tuesday.

Bernard Ngoepe, the judge president of Gauteng province, said he did not agree with the reasons the defense sought his recusal in the rape case against the former deputy president. But, he said, it was important to avoid even the appearance of bias to protect the credibility of the courts.

Jacob Zuma's lawyers argued that because Ngoepe had authorized the search warrants in a separate corruption case to be heard later this year against Zuma, there might be a perception that he was biased.

The alleged rape victim is a 31-year-old HIV-positive AIDS activist, who is also a Zuma family friend. She alleges that last November, while she was a guest in his home, Zuma raped her after he offered a massage and she declined. She says in her complaint that she was already asleep, when he came into her bedroom and woke her.

The alleged victim, who is currently in a witness protection program, arrived at court with a heavily armed police escort. Her face was covered with a scarf. Carrie Chelver, a spokeswoman for People Opposing Woman Abuse, said this case will influence how, in future, victims of violence respond to attacks.

"The outcome of this case, and the way in which this case is tried, will determine whether they stand up and speak out and report cases," she said.

About 1,000 supporters turned out for Zuma. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his likeness, several scoffed at suggestions Zuma had committed rape, saying that the charge was trumped up.

Zuma was sacked as deputy president of South Africa last June, after the earlier conviction of his friend and financial advisor, Shabir Shaik, on charges of fraud and corruption. In finding Shaik guilty, the judge in that case ruled that Shaik had facilitated an agreement with the French arms company Thint (formerly Thomsen CSF) to pay Zuma $82,000 annually for protection against prosecution, and to secure future government contracts.

The rape case is to resume Tuesday with an application by the defense for a further postponement in order to finalize their preparations.