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Zuma acquitted of rape allegations

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By Manoah Esipisu and Rebecca Harrison

A SOUTH African judge on Monday acquitted former Deputy President Jacob Zuma of raping an HIV-positive family friend, ending a case that opened deep rifts in the ruling African National Congress.

The verdict saved the man once seen as the country's next president from political oblivion, but analysts said he has been badly wounded by the sensational court case.

"I find that consensual sex took place between the complainant and the accused," Judge Willem van der Merwe told a packed courtroom as more than 2,000 Zuma supporters massed outside the Johannesburg courthouse exploded in wild cheers.

Zuma, in brief remarks to the crowd after the verdict, thanked them for their continued support.

"I thank you for not being frightened because you stood for the truth. No one should be intimidated because he's hated," Zuma said to cheers and ululation from the crowd.

Zuma's rape trial has fanned tensions in the ANC, where he remains a widely popular figure and was until recently seen as the frontrunner to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.

Despite his broad appeal, political analysts say this case and a coming prosecution on graft charges will make it hard for Zuma to recover his former prominence.

"I think the judicial proceedings have been beyond reproach, but whether this means that Zuma's political future is still intact is still in question," said Ebrahim Fakir, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies.

"He still has the corruption trial to go through, and beyond that ... There are open questions about the nature of his judgment."

The ANC, in a joint statement with its alliance partners the COSATU union group and the South African Communist Party, said it welcomed and accepted the Zuma verdict after what it described as a "distressing" trial.

"The trial process confirms that our democratic institutions, which we fought for over many years, are on a firm footing."

Women's rights groups, who held their own small protest outside the Johannesburg court, expressed dismay at the ruling.

"This is the biggest setback for women's rights in decades. We're going to see a drop in the number of women who report rape," said Miranda Friedmann, director of a group called Women and Men Against Child Abuse.

South Africa is grappling with one of the highest incidents of rape in the world, with statistics showing a conviction rate of only 1 in 9.

The 64-year-old anti-apartheid veteran had pleaded not guilty to raping his accuser at his Johannesburg home last November. But his lawyers said he did have consensual sex with the woman, a 31-year-old AIDS activist.

Conviction for rape could have brought a jail sentence of up to 15 years.

Van der Merwe, who under South Africa's non-jury trial system decided the case, said the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zuma intended rape, and questioned the credibility of the complainant.

"It would be foolish for any man with a police guard at hand and his daughter not far away to surprise a sleeping woman and to start raping her without knowing whether she would shout the roof off," he said.

The rape trial, the most sensational case in South Africa since the end of white rule in 1994, has transfixed the public with graphic sexual testimony and rival protests by Zuma supporters and women's rights groups.

Defense lawyers successfully discredited the accuser -- who under South African law cannot be named -- by delving into her sexual history and depicting her relationship with Zuma as flirtatious.

Zuma, an ethnic Zulu, was hit with the rape charge following a separate graft scandal last year which prompted Mbeki to sack him as the country's second-highest official.

He faces trial in July on the corruption charges, which he has denied and described as part of a political plot by his enemies in the ANC to end his presidential hopes.

Political analysts said the rape case had damaged Zuma, particularly because he conceded that he had unprotected sex with the woman despite knowing that she was infected with HIV, a statement which outraged AIDS activists - Reuters
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