South African prosecutors came under intense pressure to drop a criminal case against South African President Jacob Zuma just weeks ahead of his successful 2009 election run, a national newspaper reported on Sunday.
According to the Sunday Times, top prosecutors were dismayed with the decision to scrap the criminal case and thought Zuma was trying to “blackmail” them into dropping charges.
Zuma was charged in 2007 as part of a sprawling corruption probe surrounding a multi-billion-dollar arms deal in which one of his advisers was convicted, but he was cleared three weeks ahead of the April 2009 elections.
The Times, which obtained 300 pages of internal justice e-mails and other documents, said South Africa’s then-head of prosecutions came under intense pressure from Zuma’s camp to drop the case even though his prosecutors wanted to proceed.
“The documents raise questions over why then-prosecutions boss Mokotedi Mpshe ignored all their advice and let Zuma off the hook,” the paper wrote.
South African prosecutors had tried to block the Times article, but a Pretoria court late on Saturday cleared it for publication.
Documents published by the Times show Mpshe’s top prosecutors found his decision to clear Zuma had “fatal” legal flaws.
Investigators also thought Zuma was trying to “blackmail” them into dropping the case by threatening to release information on secret recordings that would be embarrassing to the National Prosecuting Authority, the Times said.
The recordings have become known in South Africa as the “spy tapes” — bugged phone calls that supposedly show the head of the elite investigative unit was using the case for political gain at a time of an intense power tussle in the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The Times also cites a memo to prosecutors by Zuma’s lawyer, who insisted at the start of 2009 they abandon the charges, saying there was risk of prompting a national crisis.
“Should the trial go ahead, it would severely disrupt the national elections and it may even skew the results,” one memo said.
Another warning was that the case could “directly precipitate a constitutional crisis of very significant proportions.”
The dropping of charges cleared the way for Zuma’s smooth election run after ousting then-South African president Thabo Mbeki as head of the ruling ANC. Zuma was charged in 2007 with corruption, fraud and racketeering for his suspected role in soliciting payments from French arms firm Thales while he was vice president between 1999 and 2005.
Zuma’s former financial adviser was jailed for fraud in 2005 and a judge found “overwhelming evidence” of a corrupt relationship between him and the politician.
Zuma has publicly embraced the fight against corruption, calling it a priority of his government. Last year he sacked two ministers, suspended the police chief and named a panel to probe the arms deal.
However, opposition parties complain corruption remains rampant and that the president has never been forced to answer for his alleged role in the arms deal scandal.