Former South African President Jacob Zuma pleaded not guilty to corruption charges Wednesday in a trial that began more than a quarter century ago after some of the alleged crimes were committed.
Zuma, 79, is being tried on multiple counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering charges linked to a 1999 $2 billion arms deal when he was deputy president.
Zuma, who faces a 25-year prison term if convicted, was president from 2009 until he was forced out of office in 2018 during multiple political corruption scandals.
He has maintained he is the target of a politically motivated witch hunt by a rival faction of the ruling African National Congress.
One of the charges accuses Zuma of accepting bribes from Thales, a French multinational company, to guarantee South Africa signed the arms deal with the company in 1999.
Prosecutors have also launched a separate probe into allegations that Zuma accepted $34,000 annually from Thales to protect the company from an investigation into the agreement.
Thales, known as Thomson-CSF when the deal was reached, said it was unaware of any offenses committed by any of its employees. A company representative pleaded not guilty to the racketeering, corruption and money laundering charges the company faces.
Prosecutors filed charges against Zuma more than a decade ago but decided just before his successful 2009 presidential campaign not to pursue them. Prosecutors reinstated the charges a month after Zuma stepped down in early 2018.
On Wednesday, Zuma’s lawyer filed papers in Pietermaritzburg High Court calling for the removal of chief prosecutor Billy Downer. They claimed Downer is biased and that Zuma’s right to a fair trial was at risk. The judge said he would consider the request.