JOHANNESBURG (AFP) — South African ruling party president Jacob Zuma's hopes of avoiding a graft trial ahead of general elections next year were bolstered Thursday with news his trial date was to be adjourned.
KwaZulu-Natal Judge President Vuka Tshabalala announced the trial, originally set down for August, would be delayed by an application by Zuma's attorney to have the case declared unlawful.
Tshabalala met with Zuma's legal team and the National Prosecuting Authority Thursday to discuss the court date, after it emerged prosecutors had failed to consult judicial authorities to appoint a judge to hear the case.
With no trial judge so far appointed, the case faces further delays and it is expected Zuma's lawyers will apply for a permanent stay of prosecution, arguing the time lag has compromised the prospects of a fair trial.
Zuma has previously said he would stand down if convicted but will not do so while the accusations are unproven -- even if it means having to campaign in the build-up to next April's elections with a legal cloud over his head.
Given that he faces a total of 16 charges ranging from money-laundering to racketeering, legal experts believe a trial could drag for months.
Tshabalala said in a statement he would "appoint a trial judge to hear a preliminary application in Pietermaritzburg on August 4 and the trial will be adjourned to a date to be determined by the trial judge."
The NPA, responsible for the judicial blunder, has repeatedly come under fire for its handling of the seven-year investigation.
Zuma's legal team had been about to launch a stay of prosecution in 2006, when the original corruption case against him was struck off the roll.
As neither the prosecution nor the defence were able to proceed at the time, a judge then struck the case off, saying the State's case had "limped from one disaster to another" and it should have investigated further before charging Zuma.
Prosecutor Billy Downer said the state was ready to proceed with the trial but the delay was requested by Zuma's legal team.
"It was decided Mr Zuma will bring an application on August 4 to have the decision of the prosecution reviewed," Downer told AFP.
"His lawyers may also bring another application for a permanent stay of prosecution, and the parties requested that a trial judge be appointed."
Zuma, 66, who toppled South African President Thabo Mbeki as leader of the ANC at a conference in December, was recharged shortly after he was elected.
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 is favourite to take over as head of state from Mbeki in general elections in 2009, with it increasingly unlikely his trial would reach a conclusion beforehand.
The ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the end of the whites-only apartheid regime 14 years ago, has stood by Zuma as its candidate for the April elections.
The country's constitutional court is currently hearing an appeal contesting the legality of warrants allowing searches of Zuma's property.
About 93,000 documents seized in the raids on the properties of Thint, Jacob Zuma and Zuma's lawyer, Michael Hulley, on August 18, 2005, are seen as central to the state's case against Zuma.
Prosecutors are still engaged in a legal battle to secure evidence from a Mauritian court.
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