A South African court has issued an arrest warrant for the former president Jacob Zuma after he failed to appear in court to answer corruption charges on the grounds of needing medical treatment.

Zuma’s lawyer, Daniel Mantsha, presented a document from what he said was a military hospital to excuse his client, but the judge questioned whether the note was valid or even written by a doctor. Prosecutors said it was a criminal offence not to fully explain an absence on medical grounds.

“Zuma’s absence is disappointing … we want Mr Mantsha to tell us what the illness is and why Zuma can’t be here. It is a criminal offence for the accused not to be present if he has been warned in court,” said Billy Downer, representing the state.

Zuma, who held office from 2009 to 2018, faces charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering relating to a $2.5bn (£1.98bn) deal to buy European military hardware for South Africa’s armed forces in the late 1990s.

His legal team said the former president had two operations in early January before going abroad and his illness was a matter of “state security”.

The arrest warrant does not come into effect until the case is due to resume on 6 May.

Zuma, whose past court appearances have been marked by defiant speeches and singing and dancing for crowds of supporters, has faded into the background as his legal challenges to the corruption charges have faltered.

The 78-year-old denies the charges against him. He has alleged his case is prejudiced by lengthy delays in bringing the matter to trial and political interference.

Prosecutors threw out the charges nearly a decade ago in a contentious decision that opened the way for Zuma to become president. They returned to the case after his controversial presidency.

Zuma was ousted in 2018 after a bitter internal battle in the ruling African National Congress and amid public outrage over separate allegations of mismanagement and graft that severely affected state-owned companies.

In a public hearing before a judicial commission of inquiry, Zuma denied he had presided over an immense system of corruption and patronage that drained billions from the country’s exchequer, and told the inquiry he was the victim of a plot by foreign intelligence agencies to seek his downfall.

South Africa, the most developed country in sub-Saharan Africa, has continued to struggle to recover under Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who has apologised for the past mismanagement and vowed reforms.

The scandals badly hurt the reputation of the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

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