A South African court issued an arrest warrant for former president Jacob Zuma on Tuesday after the 77-year-old skipped a court date for his fraud and racketeering trial, ostensibly because he needed medical treatment. Zuma’s warrant was stayed until the scheduled resumption of his trial on May 6.
Reuters reported some comedy from the courtroom, as the judge frowned upon a rather dodgy sick note tendered by Zuma’s lawyer, who went on to admit his client might not even be in the country:
Zuma’s lawyer presented the judge with a sick note from what he said was a military hospital, but Judge Dhaya Pillay questioned whether the note was valid, as there was no medical number showing if and where the doctor was certified.
“I don’t even know if [he] … is a doctor. There is … nothing to suggest that he is,” she said, before issuing the warrant.
The former leader is on trial on 18 charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering relating to a $2 billion arms deal with French defense firm Thales in 1999, when Zuma was deputy president. He rejects the allegations as a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Dan Mantsha, Zuma’s lawyer, said that he was abroad for medical treatment, without saying where. Local media have suggested he is in Cuba, although it was not immediately possible to verify this.
The judge grilled Mantsha on Zuma’s condition and found the lawyer unable to answer most questions about his medical condition. She also noticed that the date on the sick note appeared to have been altered, and the paperwork described not a proper medical evaluation but a “layman’s diagnosis with the patient’s consent.”
“What does this mean?” asked Judge Pillay. “It is puzzling that there is a reference to a layman’s diagnosis, and what the patient is giving consent to is unclear.”
Zuma’s alleged offenses occurred before he became president of South Africa in 2009. His nine-year stint in the presidency put the Thales prosecution on hold until mounting legal and political pressure jump-started the case in 2018, when his own African National Congress (ANC) party forced him from office over a different corruption scandal.
Zuma, through his lawyers, maintains he is being used as a “scapegoat” for corruption charges that should have been directed at Thabo Mbeki, who was president in 1999. He tried to have the case thrown out for an “unreasonable delay in the commencement of proceedings” during his previous court appearance, but his request was denied.