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Guptas cannot cross-examine witnesses at inquiry unless they testify: South African judge

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – The judge leading an inquiry into claims of influence-peddling against former South African president Jacob Zuma rejected an application by Gupta brothers to cross-examine witnesses, saying they could only do so if they testified.

The public inquiry, which is being telecast live, is reviewing allegations that three Gupta brothers unduly influenced Zuma regarding political appointments and the awarding of government contracts.

Zuma says the three brothers – Atul, Ajay and Rajesh who headed a large conglomerate with assets ranging from mining to media in South Africa – are his friends but he denies any influence-peddling in their relationship.

The Guptas have also denied any wrongdoing.

The brothers, whose whereabouts abroad are not known, made representations through their lawyers to cross-examine witnesses that have made allegations about them at the public hearings.

The inquiry, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, was set up on the recommendation of a 2016 report, entitled “State of Capture”, into alleged influence-peddling in Zuma’s administration by the Public Protector, South Africa’s main anti-corruption authority.

The 2016 report and other scandals surrounding Zuma’s nine-year rule forced him out of office in February.

Zondo said he would not give the Guptas special treatment.

“There is no lawful or valid reason for the Guptas not being prepared to return to South Africa and give evidence at this commission,” he said in a ruling. Zondo said he had no problem granting them permission to cross-examine witnesses if they were prepared to testify on South African soil.

Zondo also rejected a request by the Guptas to have the inquiry hold its sessions in a foreign country, and another that they be allowed to give evidence by video link.

The Guptas have said they feared arrest if they returned to South Africa.

South Africa’s chief prosecutor declared Ajay Gupta a “fugitive from justice” in February after he failed to hand himself in to police.

The Guptas’ lawyers could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Testifying earlier at the inquiry, former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas said one of the Guptas threatened to kill him if he spoke about a meeting at which they offered him money and the post of finance minister.

In his ruling on Thursday, Zondo gave Zuma’s son, Duduzane, the right to cross-examine witnesses. Dudazane has said he would testify at the hearings.

Zondo also asked Zuma to testify at the hearings as he had been referred to in critical ways by some witnesses.

In a speech at a university on Wednesday, Zuma said he did not believe in the notion of “state capture”, calling it “a politically-decorated expression”.

“We have a commission that is sitting investigating the state capture. Is the state captured?,” Zuma said “There’s no state that is captured… the judiciary is not captured. Is parliament captured? Is the executive captured? So where is this state capture?” Zuma said.

(Reporting by James Macharia; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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