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SAfrica’s Zuma in court for graft trial as protesters gather

by Fran Blandy*

South Africa's ruling party head Jacob Zuma, entered the dock yesterday for a long-awaited graft trial which could make or break his chances to become the country's next president.
Supporters of the 66-year-old African National Congress leader have vowed to shut down the sleepy city of Pietermaritzburg, where the trial of the immensely popular politician — a native of the region — is being held.
But the trial is likely to be further delayed with Zuma's lawyers expected to seek to have the case thrown out.
Zuma — widely seen as a champion of the poor and the underdog — entered the court through a back entrance yesterday morning, managing to avoid a scrum of photographers gathered outside.
This is the second time the state has attempted to prosecute Zuma for corruption after a judge struck the prosecutors' last bid off the roll in 2006, declaring their case against the populist leader was a disaster.
His supporters have labelled the charges a political vendetta against Zuma, who toppled South African President Thabo Mbeki as African National Congress leader in December. He was recharged only days after he was elected.
Hundreds had begun arriving outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province yesterday morning, singing and dancing in front of a makeshift stage alongside a white tent pitched for ANC dignitaries.
Party officials said thousands were being bussed in.
Loud music eulogising Zuma blared from speakers as police with sniffer dogs and bomb squads swept the courthouse inside and out.
"We believe he is being persecuted more than prosecuted," ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte said.
"We are hoping this matter will be thrown out of court."
She told South African radio the protests would be conducted with "respect and dignity".
High-ranking ANC members, including 22 from the its national executive committee, were expected to show their support for Zuma, who they are backing as their candidate to become South Africa's third black president in elections next year.
"This is the man who is going to push South Africa to a prosperous South Africa and the people will have the privilege of getting work. The poor ones will be supported," said 72-year-old Abraham Motaung from the North-West province.
Zuma's lawyers will seek to declare the case unlawful, and if this is not successful will bring an application for a permanent stay of prosecution, arguing that repeated delays render a fair trial impossible.
The application is expected to take two days, before the trial is provisionally adjourned. Legal challenges to the case could even push it beyond next year's elections.
Zuma is facing a total of 16 charges ranging from money-laundering to racketeering, brought against him as a result of a seven-year investigation.
The main charge against him is that he allegedly received bribes for protecting French arms company Thint in an investigation into a controversial arms deal.
 Zuma had been accused of soliciting a bribe of 500,000 rand annually from the company, a subsidiary of Thales.
The ANC leader has previously said he would stand down if convicted but will not do so while the accusations are unproven.
He was sacked by Mbeki as deputy head of state in 2005 after his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was handed a 15-year prison sentence for paying him bribes.
Zuma was dramatically cleared of rape in May 2006 after a trial in which he admitted sleeping with an HIV-positive family friend less than half his age, showering after sex in order to prevent infection.