One-time South African presidential hopeful acquitted of rape

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) – The testimony from the man who once led South Africa’s anti-AIDS campaign demonstrated an astonishing ignorance about HIV transmission and raised questions about whether he ultimately had the judgment to govern.

Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, once considered in line to be South Africa’s next president and accused of raping an AIDS activist, was acquitted of the charges on Monday in the country’s most politically charged trial since the end of apartheid.

The judge who ruled in Zuma’s favor said he believed the accuser had filed a false charge of rape, but he also scolded Zuma. Zuma had testified that he thought the chances of him contracting the virus through unprotected sex were slight and that he took a shower afterward to – in his words – reduce the chances.

“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,” Judge Willem van der Merwe said, in a verdict broadcast live on radio and television.

Doctors and AIDS activists in this country with 6 million HIV-infected people – the highest number of any country – said his testimony could undermine efforts to stem the spread of the disease in South Africa.

Zuma is just one more present or former high government official whose comments have raised questions about the government’s commitment to fight the pandemic. President Thabo Mbeki once questioned the relationship between HIV and AIDS and his health minister resisted attempts to introduce anti-retroviral treatment in South Africa and advocated garlic and the African potato as a way to fight the virus nutritionally.

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.

The judge, in a 174-page verdict, held that trauma in the past of Zuma’s accuser 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 and the back and shaking hands. Women’s activists in court were in tears. Outside, about 5,000 pro-Zuma demonstrators cheered and danced in the streets.

Zuma, in a dark suit and blue shirt – in contrast to some supporters in the courtroom wearing traditional dress of animal skins – greeted court officials warmly. He waved to his supporters and even shook hands with the two policemen who had investigated the complaint against him.

Later, the 64-year-old Zuma addressed supporters outside. Speaking in his native Zulu, he thanked them for loyalty and accused the South African press of prejudging him.

Zuma 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. Mbeki’s spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanda, said Monday: “The presidency respects the independence of the judiciary and accepts the verdict.”

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.

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.

During apartheid Zuma was imprisoned on Robben Island and later, from exile, he headed the military wing of the African National Congress.

He rose to the upper echelon of the governing party despite have been denied higher education under apartheid. He was seen as a man of the people and had the powerful support of the ANC Youth League, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and South African Communist Party – influential members of the governing alliance.

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. Zuma also testified that he believed she had indicated her desire for sex by wearing a knee-length skirt and a kanga, a traditional Africa wrap.

Doctors and health activists fear Zuma’s testimony could undermine years of prevention campaigns against AIDS.

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.

The woman has been in a witness-protection program. Her mother’s house has been ransacked twice, and pro-Zuma demonstrators have burned her picture outside the courthouse. South African media reported that she is likely to be given a new home abroad because of the feelings against her.

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