Early Wednesday a South African judge ruled that former President Jacob Zuma’s attacks on the prosecutor leading the case him were baseless and that Zuma’s trial on corruption charges proceed forthwith. Zuma had claimed prosecutor William Downer’s conduct in pursuing the case was so egregious — running the gamut from the commission of serious crimes, to breaches of ethics, to intimations of racial animus — that the charges against him must be dismissed. Or, at the least, Downer be removed from the case and trial therefore delayed indefinitely while a new prosecutor was found.
In seeing through Zuma’s desperate attempt to derail the case, and standing up to the still powerful former president, Judge Piet Koen provided a model judges everywhere should follow. When Zuma raised the unfounded, scurrilous attacks on the prosecutor, Koen ordered they be aired without delay. Upon sifting through the evidence, he promptly issued a scholarly 109-page opinion finding that not one of the allegations withstood scrutiny and that there was therefore no basis to find Downer was not a fair-minded, independent prosecutor and hence no reason Zuma would not receive a fair trial if Downer remained on the case.
Today’s 61-page decision came in response to that earlier decision. Zuma had requested that the trial be halted while he appealed it. In again a scholarly and carefully written decision, Koen knocked down the legal arguments offered in support of an appeal while reiterating the absence of any facts showing Downer guilty of misconduct or bias.
Zuma has done his best to pressure the judge into throwing out or delaying the case, with hundreds of supporters crowding into the courthouse and surrounding grounds at his every appearance to let their views be known and with some issuing not so veiled threats against the judge. Koen could have easily caved, finding merit to the claims or a way to put off the trial for months if not years.
That he did not and that he instead set the trial for this April stands in marked contrast to the way attacks on Nigerian, Zambian, and Italian prosecutors have been handled (here, here, and here). Rather than standing up for them, judges, justice ministry officials, and even fellow prosecutors stood aside after the attacks were launched with some collaborating with the attackers. If corrupt officials and their accomplices are to face justice, Judge Koen’s response must become the standard when those prosecuting them come under attack.