The newly elected leader of South Africa's ruling party has been ordered to stand trial on corruption and other charges next year, possibly derailing his attempts to become the country's president.
Jacob Zuma will be tried in the High Court in August on charges of racketeering, money laundering, corruption and fraud, his lawyer, Michael Hulley said Friday.
Zuma, 65, defeated South African President Thabo Mbeki last week in a bitterly contested election for the leadership of the African National Congress. The battle left deep rifts in the 85-year-old party, which former president Nelson Mandela led to victory over the racist apartheid state.
The popular former guerrilla fighter was handing out presents to children Friday at an annual Christmas party in his home village in KwaZulu-Natal. He would not answer reporters questions on the matter.
Zuma, who was acquitted of rape last year, has denied any corruption and has said prosecutors are trying to smear him for political reasons.
In a harshly worded statement e-mailed to the Associated Press, Hulley accused prosecutors of acting "with improper motive calculated to discredit" Zuma.
"The timing is calculated to quickly redress the popular support and call to leadership of the ANC which Mr. Zuma's election so obviously demonstrates," he said.
Tlali Tlali, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, would not comment Friday.
Victory tainted by charges
Mbeki fired Zuma as the country's deputy president in 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of trying to elicit bribes.
Prosecutor contend Zuma was aware of efforts to secure payments for him from French arms company Thint Holdings in exchange for stopping investigations into a multibillion-dollar arms deal with the government.
Charges against Zuma were thrown out last year on a technicality. But last week the country's top prosecutor said he had enough evidence to go back to court — an announcement that overshadowed Zuma's victory over Mbeki.
Zuma responded defiantly at press conference after his election as ANC president. "Take me to court," he said.
The possibility Zuma would be charged hovered over the election at last week's ANC congress and the pending case will mean turmoil for the party.
The ANC party leader has traditionally been the party's presidential candidate. The party's overwhelming backing has ensured victories for Mandela in 1994, then Mbeki in 1999 and 2004. The constitution requires that Mbeki stand down in 2009. But had he won a third term as the party leader, he would have been in a position to influence the choice of a successor.
Zuma's lawyer did not provide details of the charges, but the allegations of racketeering and money laundering appear to have been added following continued investigations by prosecutors.
State building case against Zuma
The state has won a number of legal victories this year, with South Africa's court of appeal ruling that the seizure by police of incriminating documents from Zuma's home and office was legal.
Earlier this month, damning new allegations claiming Zuma received bribes from the French arms company Thint to scotch investigations into a multibillion-dollar arms deal were also filed in court.
The investigations have centered on a $7.1 billion deal to buy ships, submarines, helicopters, jets and other arms in 1999.
The election of Zuma, a charismatic leader who enjoys wide support among the trade unions and other leftist groups, has left South Africans — and the rest of the world — watching nervously lest he set Africa's largest economy on a dangerously populist course.
But he and Mbeki have gone to great lengths to assure the public that there will be little change in government policies and that the relationship between the two leaders will be a smooth one.
Zuma, who has little formal education, was a leader in the intelligence services of the ANC's military wing. Like Mandela, here served time in prison on Robben Island.
He brokered the peace that ended violent clashes between ANC members and the Zulu Inkatha party, as well as infighting among ANC members in his native KwaZulu-Natal province, at the time of the first all-race elections in 1994.
Last year, Zuma was acquitted of raping a family friend. He outraged AIDS activists by testifying that he had unprotected, consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman and then took a shower in the belief that it would protect him from the AIDS virus.