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Jacob Zuma Must Return to Prison, South Africa Judge Rules

JOHANNESBURG — Former President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, who was released from prison on medical parole in September, must return to serve the rest of a 15-month sentence linked to his appearance before a corruption investigation, a judge ruled on Wednesday.

The former president was imprisoned on contempt charges in June after defying an order to appear before a corruption inquiry examining financial scandals that tainted his tenure as the country’s leader from 2009 to 2018. But Mr. Zuma, 79, applied for medical parole within a month of his incarceration and was granted it after being in prison for just two months.

It is not clear when Mr. Zuma will return to prison. After “studying the judgment,” the Department of Correctional services said it too would launch an appeal, but did not give any detail on what grounds.

Mr. Zuma’s lawyers filed a motion to appeal the judgment within hours of it being issued. They argued that the judge had ignored a doctor’s assertion that Mr. Zuma is terminally ill, and said that a correctional facility could not provide the necessary medical care. Sending him back to prison would be “tantamount to the death sentence, which was abolished in 1995 in South Africa,” they said in a statement.

At the time of Mr. Zuma’s early release, the correctional services department said the move had been “impelled by a medical report” but offered no further details about the former president’s health. The judgment on Wednesday provided some insight.

Upon being taken into custody in July to begin his sentence, Mr. Zuma was held in the medical wing of a prison near his home in Nkandla, in the rural north of KwaZulu-Natal Province. Within a month, a doctor who examined him described Mr. Zuma’s condition as “worrisome,” pointing to the “unpredictability of his plausible life-threatening cardiac and neurological events.” Another found that his glucose, blood pressure and kidney function had gone “completely out of kilter” after just four weeks.

The medical parole board rejected his application on the basis that his illness was not terminal and could be managed by prison health workers. But Mr. Zuma was released after the national commissioner of correctional services, Arthur Fraser — a political ally of Mr. Zuma’s — overturned the board’s decision.

Nongovernmental groups and the country’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, asked the High Court in Pretoria, the executive capital, to review the move. And on Wednesday, Judge Keoagile Matojane set aside the commissioner’s decision, calling it “irrational” and agreeing with the medical parole board that Mr. Zuma’s health had not “deteriorated permanently or reached an irreversible state.”

The judge dismissed the commissioner’s assertion that Mr. Zuma’s continued incarceration would lead to a repeat of the violence and looting that occurred in South Africa in July soon after Mr. Zuma’s arrest. The unrest, which began as a demonstration calling for his release, quickly gained momentum in protest over broader economic dissatisfaction.

After the judgment, the South African Human Rights Commission called for calm, fearing that inflammatory messages on social media could lead to a repeat of the violence. The African National Congress, South Africa’s governing party, said it would wait for the correctional services department’s complete response before weighing in on the matter.

Judge Matojane also ordered that the time Mr. Zuma spent on medical parole not be counted toward his 15-month sentence.

During that time, Mr. Zuma released a book, “The Words of a President: Jacob Zuma Speaks,” an account of his administration from his perspective.

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