South African officialis acquitted of rape

Published May 9, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - A man who once seemed in line to be South Africa's next president was acquitted of rape Monday in the country's most politically charged trial since the end of apartheid.

Supporters erupted into boisterous celebrations, but former Deputy President Jacob Zuma still faces trial in July on separate corruption charges - accusations supporters say were part of a conspiracy against him - and his political future was in question.

Trial testimony riveted the nation, focused attention on its high rate of rape and raised questions about Zuma's attitude toward women and whether ultimately he had the judgment to govern.

His testimony about having unprotected consensual sex with an HIV-positive AIDS activist demonstrated an amazing ignorance about HIV transmission by a man who once headed South Africa's campaign against the virus.

It also heightened questions about HIV prevention in a country with 6-million HIV-infected people - the world's highest number. South Africa's president once questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, and its health minister resisted attempts to introduce antiretroviral treatment, advocating instead the AIDS-fighting ability of garlic and the African potato.

Judge Willem van der Merwe, in a 174-page verdict that took some six hours to read and was broadcast live on television and radio, held that Zuma's accuser had made a false rape claim, possibly because trauma in her past may have led her to find "any sexual behavior threatening."

Zuma remained impassive as the verdict was delivered, but his supporters erupted, cheering and ululating, clapping Zuma on the back and shaking hands while the judge signaled for order. Women's activists in court were in tears. Outside, about 5,000 pro-Zuma demonstrators cheered and danced in the streets.

Zuma, 64, has consistently protested his innocence on both the rape and corruption charges, maintaining the accusations resulted from a political conspiracy by people within the ruling party to derail his bid to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009. Mbeki is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term

Mbeki has been vilified by Zuma supporters since he fired the deputy president because of the corruption allegations.

Zuma was accused of raping the 31-year-old activist and family friend at his Johannesburg home last November. Zuma insisted the sex was consensual.

He also testified that he did not use a condom though he knew the woman was carrying the AIDS virus and that he took a shower after sex because he believed it reduced the risk of infection.

The woman has testified she did not fight or scream for help because she froze when faced with advances from the man she regarded as a father. She said she would never have agreed to sex without a condom.

While the judge found Zuma's version convincing, he still chastised him and said Zuma and his accuser were both to blame.

"The accused should not have had sexual intercourse with a person so many years younger than himself, who furthermore had been the child of a comrade," said the judge.

He added: "It is totally unacceptable that a man should have unprotected sex with a person other than his regular partner and definitely not with a person who to his knowledge is HIV-positive. I do not even want to comment on the effect of the shower after having had unprotected sex." Zuma nonetheless remains a hero in the eyes of many South Africans.

Zuma testified that the woman, whom he had known since she was a child, encouraged him with phone messages and flirtatious behavior and did not resist his advances.

Women's groups said the case has increased awareness of rape in South Africa, where reported rape is 114 cases per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 32 per 100,000 in the United States.

But the accuser was heckled as she arrived in court, and aggressive cross-examination about her sexual history prompted concern the trial will deter other women from reporting rape.