By Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) -Former South African president Jacob Zuma tried to block his arrest in court on Tuesday as top police officials said they would hold back while Zuma’s two-pronged legal challenge unfolds.
The constitutional court sentenced Zuma a week ago to a 15-month jail term for contempt of court after he defied an order to give evidence at an inquiry into corruption during his nine years in power.
The court gave Zuma five days to hand himself in, failing which police were instructed to arrest him by the end of Wednesday.
But Zuma did not hand himself in, instead asking the constitutional court to cancel its sentence and approaching the high court to issue an order – known as an interdict – to prevent his arrest.
The judge presiding over the case said he would rule on Friday at 11:30 a.m. (0930 GMT) on whether to grant the interdict.
Speaking to journalists on Sunday, he lashed out at the judges that sentenced him and compared them to the white minority rulers he fought during the liberation struggle. Hundreds of his supporters, some of them armed, were gathered nearby at his rural homestead to prevent his arrest.
Zuma’s latest act of defiance is seen a test of South Africa’s rule of law. It has the potential to erupt into violence as the former president still commands loyal followings in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal and within the governing African National Congress (ANC).
On Tuesday, Zuma’s lawyer Dali Mpofu urged the Pietermaritzburg High Court to grant the interdict given the “aggravated situation” in the country since Zuma was sentenced and factors including his age.
“What we have here, My Lord, is a warrant of arrest for the former head of state who will be 80 years next birthday, who is not a flight risk on anybody’s version,” he said.
Outside the courthouse 20 to 30 Zuma supporters protested, waving banners including “The people’s president deserves a fair trial” and wearing t-shirts reading “Hands off Zuma”.
A lawyer for the corruption inquiry, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, said Zuma had a duty to hand himself in by Sunday, irrespective of his application for the constitutional court to cancel its sentence, which will be heard on July 12.
“Mr Zuma on his own has literally taken the law into his own hands,” Ngcukaitobi said. “We are dealing with a recalcitrant, deliberately defiant litigant.”
‘EVERY LEGAL AVENUE’
The inquiry that Zuma refused to attend is examining allegations he allowed three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, to plunder state resources and traffic influence over government policy.
Zuma and the Gupta brothers, who fled the country after Zuma was ousted by allies of his successor Cyril Ramaphosa, deny any wrongdoing.
In a letter to the acting chief justice, seen by Reuters, the state attorney acting for the police minister and police commissioner said they would hold back from arresting Zuma pending the outcome of his litigation or directions to act otherwise.
Senior ANC official Jessie Duarte said the party was aware Zuma was exploring “every legal avenue” to reduce or escape his prison sentence.
“We believe the judiciary must be left to make its own decisions, (but) … we would hope that comrade Zuma’s court application will be successful,” she said.
(Reporting by Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Editing by Alison Williams and Catherine Evans)