South Africa: Fire and Fury From the Bench As Thales Tries to Create Distance Between Itself and Zuma

Former president Jacob Zuma (file photo).

Arms company Thales has tried to distance itself from former President Jacob Zuma, as both parties seek a permanent stay of prosecution on charges relating to the now-infamous Arms Deal.

But this angle from Thales' lawyers on Tuesday sparked a volley of questions from a full bench in the Kwazulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg.

Zuma is accused of taking bribes from Thales (then Thomson CSF) during the Arms Deal in the late 1990's. Zuma and Thales have filed applications for a permanent stay of prosecution.

Arguments for Zuma were put forth in an emotive day of arguments by advocate Muzi Sikhakhane SC on Monday.

Advocate Anton Katz SC, for Thales, was quickly on the defensive as a series of fiery questions rained on him from Judges Bhekisisa Mnguni, Thoba Poyo-Dlwati and Esther Steyn.

In what was a highly technical day of legal wrangling, the judges pushed Katz on aspects of his interpretations of the laws that govern prosecutorial power.

Katz maintained that former National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) head advocate Shaun Abrahams acted irregularly when he decided to reinstate charges against Thales.

He argued that Abrahams had only decided to charge Thales because Zuma was again charged. Thales, he said, was just the "flotsam" that floated along in the wake of the Zuma matter.

In the arguments put forth by Katz, he attempted to create an impression of a disconnect between Zuma and Thales.

But the full bench was not convinced.

Judge Mnguni made it clear to Katz early on that he believed one could not separate the issues, and that Abrahams had reinstated the charges against Zuma when the high court found the withdrawal of charges against Zuma by former NDPP Mokotedi Mpshe, was unlawful.

The high court ruling effectively forced Abrahams to charge Zuma again.

Thales' fate was inextricably intertwined with that ruling, Judge Mnguni said.

Katz and Judge Steyn also clashed on interpretations of Constitutional and common law, particularly the sections that give powers to an NDPP to delegate his prosecutorial authority to others.

After the lunch adjournment, advocate Mushahida Adhikari, also for Thales, argued aspects of the arms company's right to a fair trial.

Witnesses the company would want call or cross-examine simply were not available, said Adhikari.

The witnesses were either dead, sick or missing, the court heard.

Adhikari also pointed out that, in court papers, the NPA said Interpol was called to assist, and could not trace the former Thales employees.

All of this, Thales argued, meant the company could not get a fair trial.

The matter resumes on Thursday, with advocate Wim Trengove for the State expected to argue why the applications should be dismissed, and why Thales and Zuma should answer to the charges they first faced 15 years ago.

Outside court, roughly 50 supporters gathered to catch a glimpse of Zuma.


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