Piet Koen named as Zuma trial judge, amid rumours of defence bid to oust Billy Downer

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Judge Piet Koen will preside over the Zuma trial. (Twitter, RSAJudiciary)
Judge Piet Koen will preside over the Zuma trial. (Twitter, RSAJudiciary)

Judge Piet Koen has been confirmed as the judicial officer who will determine whether former president Jacob Zuma and French arms company Thales are guilty of corruption.

Pietermaritzburg High Court manager Mbusowezwe Zondi told News24 on Thursday afternoon that Koen, who has also served as an acting judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal, has been appointed as the presiding judge in the long-awaited Zuma matter, which is scheduled to start on Monday.

At this stage, it is unclear whether the trial will actually go ahead, as Zuma's former lawyers resigned last month, reportedly because of undisclosed "ethical reasons".

READ | Zuma's defence lawyers quit less than a month before corruption trial starts

The former president's erstwhile attorney, Eric Mabuza, has been called upon to explain the legal team's last-minute withdrawal from the case when it gets underway on Monday.

The team's exit followed a Supreme Court of Appeal confirmation that Zuma was not entitled to state funding of his legal costs.

News24 has learnt from impeccable sources that advocate Thabani Masuku, who was part of the team that resigned from the case, has returned to represent Zuma – and has indicated that he intends to apply for lead Zuma prosecutor Billy Downer's recusal from the case.

As yet, though, no such application for Downer's recusal has been filed, and Masuku has declined to comment.

Position

Koen, meanwhile, last month made headlines during his unsuccessful interview for a permanent position at the Appeal Court, when Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng accused him of being "rude and discourteous" during a September 2016 meeting on judicial cost-cutting,

Mogoeng said the way Koen had addressed him at the meeting was a "cause of grave concern" and said it was "one of my worst experiences".

"You were one of the leading voices in that meeting. It was one of the most unfortunate meetings a judge should ever have — and I am putting that in the lightest possible way…

"I thought: how did he become a judge? A member of our office, who is a white Afrikaner, told me he was ashamed to be a white man. I told him you don't have to be. You can come across as discourteous, regardless of colour."

Koen, who has been a judge for 14 years, said he had read the transcript of the meeting and "respectfully submit that contents thereof were not intended to be rude".

"But perception is important," he added, "and if it was construed as such, I am very saddened and I apologise unreservedly."

Mogoeng accepted his apology.

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