JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Former South African President Jacob Zuma was taken back to prison on Friday after his parole was ruled invalid, only to be released again within two hours under a new program to reduce overcrowding in jails.
The move immediately raised more questions over whether the 81-year-old is receiving preferential treatment to avoid serving out a 15-month sentence for contempt of court for refusing to testify at an inquiry into corruption. It was called “an absolute joke” by South Africa’s main opposition party.
The remissions program was authorized by President Cyril Ramaphosa and made public for the first time Friday. While justice officials said it aims to release more than 9,400 inmates from jail and put them under correctional supervision at home, Zuma appeared to be the first to benefit from it.
Zuma reported to the Estcourt Correctional Centre in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province at 6 a.m., ostensibly to serve the remaining 13 months of his sentence. But he was released some time after 7 a.m. when his remission was processed, said Makgothi Thobakgale, the acting national commissioner of the corrections department.
Zuma later arrived back at his rural Nkandla estate in a convoy of black SUVs, according to video broadcast by South African media.
“Surprise, surprise, he is the first beneficiary of a brand new policy,” said John Steenhuisen, the leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. “This is a cynical manipulation of the justice system.”
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said President Ramaphosa had taken the decision to “remit the sentence” of his predecessor under the constitutional authority he has to remit the sentence of “any offender at any time.”
“The president’s decision is to remit sentences of offenders across the country. It is not a specific decision about former president Zuma. It’s about all the offenders across the country,” Lamola said.
Friday’s twist continued a two-year legal wrangle over Zuma’s sentence. He was sent to prison in July 2021 for defying a court order to testify at a corruption inquiry, but was released on medical parole having served just two months.
That medical parole — granted to Zuma by a former prisons boss seen as one of his political allies — was ruled invalid in court, forcing the Department of Corrections to make a new call on whether Zuma should go back to jail to serve the outstanding 13 months or whether his time on medical parole should count as him having served his sentence.
Instead, the corrections department went for neither. Including Zuma in the newly announced remissions program to ease prison congestion was viewed as a fudge by some to avoid the kind of violent unrest that erupted in South Africa the first time Zuma was sent to jail.
In 2021, more than 350 people died in some of the worst violence the country has seen since the final days of apartheid in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as rioting swept across Zuma’s home province of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the economic hub province of Gauteng.
South Africa had deployed the army to provide extra security in four provinces last month when the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma’s early release on medical parole was improper, and security forces were on high alert again this week.
Zuma has recently returned from Russia where he received medical treatment for an undisclosed illness.
He is also on trial for corruption in a separate case, where he faces a 15-year jail sentence having been charged with corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering. Those charges were laid in early 2021 but the trial — which centers on a multibillion-dollar arms deal South Africa secured before Zuma was president — has been bogged down in hearings and no testimony has yet been heard.
Zuma was acquitted of rape in a trial in 2006 and revived his political career to be elected president of Africa’s most developed economy in 2009. He was forced to resign in 2018 in the face of corruption allegations and was later called to testify at a judicial inquiry into the alleged graft during his tenure.
At the inquiry, witnesses testified to massive graft during Zuma’s presidency, mostly involving huge contracts at state-owned businesses. Zuma refused to testify, leading to him being convicted of contempt of court.
Although the inquiry showed how South Africa lost billions of dollars of public money to rampant corruption under Zuma, no one has been convicted over that graft and no major figures have been brought to trial.
Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.
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