JOHANNESBURG - A South African court has issued an arrest warrant for former president Jacob Zuma, after his repeated failure to appear for his long-stalled corruption trial. The action raises the stakes on a trial that has dragged on for years, with Zuma due back in court — or else in police custody — on May 6.
As the trial opened Feb. 4, 2020, in the judicial capital of Pietermaritzburg, Zuma's lawyer gave the judge a sick note.
The lawyer also said the health of the former leader was a matter of "national security." Zuma resigned under pressure in 2018, in a cloud of corruption allegations.
But Judge Dhaya Pillay expressed skepticism over the authenticity of the note, which was missing a doctor's signature.
"It is standard practice, in this court and in every court holding a criminal trial, that if an accused is not in attendance, if an accused has failed to produce a medical certificate, and in this instance, counsel for Mr. Zuma was notified in advance in the middle of January that this document, that some evidence is required to justify his absence from court, and without that evidence, this court cannot do anything else but issue a warrant of arrest," the judge said.
Criminal law expert James Grant says it is doubtful Zuma will end up in handcuffs. The judge's ruling only stipulates that he will be arrested if he doesn't appear on the next trial date, May 6.
"What happens is that when an accused person is supposed to present themselves, they've failed to present themselves, as a matter of course, the presiding officer who could be a magistrate or a judge in South Africa issued an arrest warrant," Grant said. "But if there's any semblance or prospect of an explanation as to why the person wasn't present, that arrest warrant will be suspended. And so it has in truth, no real effect, as of today or as of yesterday."
Zuma faces one count of racketeering, two counts of corruption, one count of money laundering and 12 counts of fraud for allegedly receiving bribe money in the 1990s from a French arms company through his former financial adviser.
"If he is convicted under any of the fraud charges for an amount exceeding 500,000 rand, from my recollection, it's either a 15- or a 25-year sentence," Grant said.
A sentence of that length would probably mean life in prison for Zuma, who turns 78 years old in April.