South Africa's deputy president was charged with rape

South Africa's dismissed deputy president was charged with rape Tuesday in a case that could end the political career of a man who once seemed certain to lead the continent's economic and diplomatic powerhouse. Jacob Zuma, who remains No. 2 of the governing African National Congress despite also facing corruption charges, maintained his innocence Tuesday. But he said he was suspending participation in his party's leadership structures for the duration of the trial. Zuma appeared briefly in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court at a special early morning session and was released on 20,000 rands bail (US$3,075; Ђ2,560), the National Prosecuting Authority said in a statement. Trial was set for Feb. 13. No details of the case were released.

Reports that Zuma allegedly raped a family friend surfaced in local newspapers last month. Zuma said the intense media speculation had prejudiced his chances for a fair trial. "I wish to state clearly that I am innocent of these charges," Zuma said in a statement. "I regard these allegations against me very seriously as I abhor any form of abuse against women."

He said he had informed ANC Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe of his decision not attend leadership meetings but would retain his title of party deputy president.

Zuma's supporters maintain the rape and corruption charges are part of a smear campaign to erode his enduring popularity within the ANC and its trade union allies, and dash any hopes of his succeeding Mbeki when he finishes his second term in 2009. Mbeki fired Zuma from his government position in June after he was charged with corruption linked to the conviction of his friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. The judge in that case said Shaik and Zuma had a "generally corrupt" relationship.

The judge found that Shaik made payments to Zuma totaling some 1.2 million rands (US$185,000; Ђ151,000) to fund a lavish lifestyle. He also concluded Zuma was aware of Shaik's efforts to facilitate a yearly payment of 500,000 rand (US$77,000; Ђ63,000) to the ex-deputy president from French arms company Thint Holdings, formerly Thomson CSF, to deflect corruption investigations into a 1999 weapons deal with the South African government.

Shaik is appealing his 15-year sentence for fraud and corruption. Zuma's dismissal opened a rift within the ANC. Large, sometimes unruly crowds have turned out for his court appearances in the eastern coastal city of Durban, reports the AP. N.U.

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