Former South African President Jacob Zuma was on Tuesday sentenced to 15 months in prison for defying a court order to appear before a corruption inquiry panel, reported AP. This is the first time in the country’s history that a former president has been sentenced to prison.
The country’s top court, the Constitutional Court, ordered Zuma to hand himself over to the police within five days in his hometown of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province or in Johannesburg. If Zuma fails to do so, the court has ordered the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, to take him into custody within three days.
“The Constitutional Court holds that there can be no doubt that Mr Zuma is in contempt of court,” Acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe said. “Mr Zuma was served with the order [to appear before the inquiry panel] and it is impossible to conclude anything other than that he was unequivocally aware of what it required of him.”
Khampepe added: “Mr Zuma has repeatedly reiterated that he would rather be imprisoned than cooperate with the commission or comply with the order made.”
The commission is inquiring corruption allegations during Zuma’s tenure as president between 2009 and 2018. The former president had earlier expressed his unwillingness to appear before the commission, which has so far heard evidence directly implicating Zuma in wrongdoing.
Zuma had appeared once before the panel but refused to do so for subsequent summons, reported BBC. The inquiry, led by Justice Raymond Zondo, had then asked the Constitutional Court to intervene.
In a 21-page letter written to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in April, Zuma had claimed that he was ready to be sent to prison. He had also claimed that Zondo was biased against him and the evidence was “politically motivated”.
Commenting on the letter, Khampepe said that Zuma’s attempts to evoke public sympathy through unfounded allegations were an insult to the constitutional order of the country, reported Reuters. “If his conduct is met with impunity, he will do significant damage to the rule of law,” she said.
The allegations against Zuma include allowing Indian businessmen, the Gupta brothers, to plunder state resources. The Gupta brothers – Ajay, Atul and Rajesh – have been accused of “state capture”, a term coined to describe how the family allegedly used its relationship with Zuma to influence state contracts, Cabinet appointments and secure several multimillion-dollar deals in the country.
Some former Cabinet ministers, executives of state-owned enterprises and high-ranking government officials have appeared as witnesses and implicated Zuma in the corruption case.
Zuma is also facing charges related to bribes that he allegedly received during South Africa’s 1999 arms procurement deal when he was the deputy president. Zuma has pleaded not guilty in the case.
(Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the headline of this report mentioned that Zuma was sentenced to 15 years in jail. The error has been rectified.)