© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: South Africa’s former president Zuma to appear before commission of inquiry into state corruption

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – A corruption case against former South African President Jacob Zuma and French company Thales related to a $2 billion arms deal will begin on May 17, a court said on Tuesday.

Zuma stands accused of rampant corruption during his tenure as deputy president from 1999 and later as president from 2009 to 2018, although he denies any wrongdoing.

The arms deal allegations relate to his time as deputy president and he is being tried on 16 charges of racketeering, fraud, corruption and money laundering in connection with French defence firm Thales.

Zuma is accused of accepting 500,000 rand ($34,000) annually from Thales from 1999 as a bribe, in exchange for protecting the company from an investigation into a deal to supply military hardware to South Africa.

He denied the charges at a previous hearing. Thales, known as Thompson-CSF in 1999, has consistently said it has no knowledge of any transgressions having been committed by any of its employees in relation to the awarding of the contracts.

The pre-trial hearing, which was broadcast on local television, began on Tuesday after it was postponed in December.

Zuma was not present for the hearing.

The case is ready to go to trial, the Pietermaritzburg High Court said, and asked all accused to be present on May 17 provided COVID-19 restrictions allow representatives of the French company to fly to the country.

The trial will last from May until June, the court said.

In another case, a South African inquiry into corruption during Zuma’s time as president is seeking his imprisonment for two years, after he defied an order from the country’s top court to appear and give evidence.

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