South Africa's Zuma back in court in fresh bid to avoid jail

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Jacob Zuma, once dubbed South Africa's "Teflon president" for his ability to evade the verdict of justice, on Tuesday mounted the first round of a last-ditch bid to avoid jail for snubbing anti-graft investigators.

Zuma has mounted a two-pronged legal attempt to avoid jail after the Constitutional Court, the country's top judicial authority, slapped him with a 15-month term for contempt.

The Pietermaritzburg High Court on Tuesday heard Zuma's application to halt execution of an imminent arrest order as police gave him several days' breathing space.

They said they would not make any move to detain him until he had exhausted his legal options.

In his petition to the court, Zuma's lawyer Dali Mpofu argued that the former president would turn 80 on his next birthday, his "health condition is uncontestably precarious," and he was not a flight risk as he was under the care and security of the state.

That argument gained short shrift from the anti-graft panel that Zuma snubbed.

"We are dealing with a repetitive and recalcitrant law breaker in the form of Mr Zuma," attorney Tembeka Ngcukaitobi told judge Bhekisisa Mnguni.

"He has now come to ask you to assist him to break the law further. You should reject that."

The court then went into recess, with the verdict expected on Friday.

- 'State capture' probe -

The jail term was handed down last week after Zuma refused to obey court orders to appear before the commission, which is headed by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.

The panel is probing so-called state capture -- the siphoning off of national assets, which occurred on a massive scale under Zuma's nine-year tenure.

Zuma was told to turn himself in by midnight last Sunday, failing which police would be instructed to arrest him within the following three days.

But before Tuesday's hearing got underway, lawyers for the police wrote to the Constitutional Court saying they would pause on the arrest order given the "unique situation presented by the developments and the legal matrix involved."

Mpofu commended the police for considering "the aggravated situation in the country around this matter," pointing to the "volatile security situation that may be posed."

In a show of solidarity, hundreds of supporters have descended on Zuma's rural home in Nkandla, in southeastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province. Police dispersed a small group of supporters that tried to gather outside the court on Tuesday.

- 'Teflon' -

Zuma's scandal-tainted rule ended in 2018, when the ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced him out and replaced him with Cyril Ramaphosa.

Critics nicknamed him the "Teflon President" for his perceived ability to evade justice -- a reputation that had endured until last week's sentence.

Zuma has separately pleaded with the Constitutional Court to reconsider and rescind its jail order. That challenge will be heard on July 12.

On Sunday Zuma defiantly declared he was prepared to go prison, even though "sending me to jail during the height of a pandemic, at my age, is the same as sentencing me to death."

An ex-fighter against white-minority government in South Africa who spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island, Zuma has compared the country's' judiciary to "apartheid-type rule".

"I am facing a long detention without trial," he said.

- ANC tensions -

His case has fuelled tensions within the ruling party, where the former president still commands much support among the grass roots and senior officials.

Mindful of its internal tussles, the ANC said it understood why Zuma was exploring every possible channel but also said no-one was above the law.

"No one wants to go to jail... I think that (ex-) president Zuma is exploring every legal avenue that is available to reduce or to remove the custodial sentence that has been put on him," ANC deputy secretary Jesse Duarte said on Tuesday.

"We would hope that comrade Zuma's court application will be successful," she told a press conference following a special meeting on Monday of the party's National Executive Committee.

But, she added, "The interests of an individual cannot take precedence over or jeopardise the interests of our democracy. The judiciary must be left to make its own decisions."

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