PIETERMARITZBURG, South Africa – A judge dismissed corruption charges against Jacob Zuma on Wednesday after the prosecution said it was not ready to proceed against a powerful, populist politician who could be South Africa's next president.
The ruling set off jubilant celebrations by Zuma's supporters, who believe it will add momentum to his presidential campaign — although the cloud of possible corruption and concerns about the former deputy president's judgment may linger.
"Everything has been brought to finality. If there are any others who would like to bring me back to court they must start afresh," Zuma told about 5,000 supporters, some perched in trees, celebrating outside the courthouse.
Makhosini Nkosi, spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said the prosecution would decide in the next few weeks whether to bring a new indictment. Even before Wednesday's ruling, doubts had been growing that the state could secure a conviction.
Judge Herbert Msimang was scathing about the strength of the prosecution's case in his ruling Wednesday.
Prosecutors appeared to be waiting for decisions from appeals courts on the conviction of Zuma's financial adviser and on the admissibility of new evidence obtained in police raids, including searches of the home and offices of a defense attorney.
Msimang ruled first against a prosecution request for a postponement in the trial, saying the state's case had "limped from one disaster to another." When the prosecution said it was not ready to proceed immediately, he said he had no choice but to dismiss the indictment.
"It was inevitable that the state's evidence to prosecute in this matter would flounder," Msimang said in his ruling.
He called the indictment a "sham" and said the state's case depended on the outcome of the challenges to new evidence gained in the police searches. The state, he said, was "taking chances that the trial court would come to their rescue to admit such evidence."
The prosecution had sought a delay, at least until Oct. 15, to allow it to amend the indictment with the new evidence.
Zuma, who was acquitted of rape earlier this year, was axed in 2005 as deputy president by President Thabo Mbeki when it became clear he would have to stand trial on corruption charges.
While he was acquitted of rape, statements he made on the stand that revealed ignorance about how AIDS was transmitted and raised questions about his attitude toward women, setting off a debate about his leadership capabilities.
The 64-year-old former guerrilla leader has pleaded innocent to charges that he was aware of efforts by his financial adviser Schabir Shaik to secure him yearly payments of $70,000 (500,000 rands) from the French arms company Thint Holdings to deflect corruption investigations into a South African arms deal.
The investigations centered on a $7.1 billion deal to buy ships, submarines, helicopters, jets and other arms in 1999. Shaik, a close friend of Zuma, was convicted of fraud and corruption last year and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His appeal will be heard next week.
Thint was indicted alongside Zuma. Defense attorney Kissie Naidu, part of the team representing the French arms company, said after the ruling that as far as he was concerned "the matter is now over."
Zuma, deputy leader of the governing African National Congress, has recently stepped up his campaign to succeed Mbeki, whose term expires in 2009. Zuma contends the charges result from a political conspiracy by forces within the ANC to derail his candidacy.