S. African politician is acquitted of rape

Ex-deputy president still faces corruption trial


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's former deputy president was acquitted yesterday of charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend, a verdict that sent thousands of his ardent supporters dancing into the streets, hoping for his political comeback.

But Jacob Zuma, deputy head of the ruling African National Congress, who has made clear he still harbors ambitions to lead South Africa, faces a trial on corruption charges in two months. To a growing number of South Africans, the man who once led both the National AIDS Council and its Moral Regeneration Movement looks, despite his rape acquittal, like a man with appallingly bad judgment.

Judge Willem van der Merwe, in a detailed, six-hour explanation of his decision in the rape case, admonished Zuma, who is 64 and married, for irresponsible behavior for having sex with the 31-year- old woman without a condom.

Zuma's contention in the trial that he took a shower after having sex to reduce his chances of contracting the deadly virus and that he had sex without a condom because he thought his chances of getting the disease were small has horrified South African AIDS activists, who say the misinformation threatens lives in a nation where more than 5 million people are infected with the virus.

"That he was exonerated I don't think translates into a vote of confidence in him as a leader," said Xolela Mangcu, a social analyst with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "I think the broader public is embarrassed by the whole thing."

In his verdict, van der Merwe said prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zuma had anything but consensual sex with the woman when she spent the night at his Johannesburg home in November.

The woman, an AIDS activist, was vilified by Zuma's supporters, who burned her photo outside the courtroom. South African newspapers suggested that she might go into exile for her protection.

Delphine Serumaga, the head of People Opposing Women Abuse, said the verdict, and the way the rape complainant was grilled on the stand about her sexual history, could dissuade other women from bringing rape charges.

"It's so difficult for women to come to us and say this happened and I want to take a charge forward," Serumaga said. "If I were raped, I might think, `What is the point? Better to deal with it silently on my own.'"

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