Judge rejects Zuma request to step down in South African graft inquiry

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South Africa's former president Zuma to appear before commission of inquiry into state corruption
South Africa's former president Zuma to appear before commission of inquiry into state corruption

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo rejected on Thursday an application by former President Jacob Zuma for the judge to recuse himself from an inquiry into state corruption.

Judge Zondo, the chairman of the inquiry, said Zuma had failed to make the case that he was biased.

After the decision was handed down, and the inquiry took a short adjournment, Zuma and his legal team failed to return for the former president to begin his testimony. He had been issued a summons to attend Thursday's proceedings.

Television news channel eNCA's journalists reported seeing Zuma's motorcade driving away from the venue in Johannesburg.

"He has left today without asking me to be excused," Zondo said. "This is a serious matter ... he was going to be asked to take the witness stand and be questioned about various matters that we are investigating."

He judge did not indicate what steps it would now take to compel Zuma to testify. Zuma's lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment. It is unclear whether the commission will now issue an arrest warrant for Zuma.

Zuma was removed as president in 2018, a year before his second term was due to end. A number of witnesses at the commission of inquiry have implicated him in alleged wrongdoing during his nine years as head of state.

The former president has denied the allegations, and in a previous appearance at the inquiry said there was a conspiracy against him. His lawyers argued this week that Zondo was biased and said he should recuse himself.

Zondo dismissed that accusation and an allegation of bias by Zuma's lawyers based on Zondo and Zuma being friends.

Zondo said Zuma's arguments did not meet the test for a "reasonable apprehension of bias", which in law requires the reviewing judge to consider whether a reasonable person would have grounds to suspect impartiality.

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana, Editing by Timothy Heritage)