South Africa's popular former deputy president, already facing corruption charges, was indicted for rape Tuesday in a case that could destroy his chances of taking the helm of a country seen as a political and economic model across the continent.
Jacob Zuma, who was dismissed from government but remains No. 2 of the governing African National Congress, declared his innocence but said he was voluntarily withdrawing from his party's leadership structures for the duration of the trial.
Zuma was formally indicted at a special early morning session in Johannesburg Magistrate's Court and was released on $3,075 bail, the National Prosecuting Authority said. Trial was set for Feb. 13.
Zuma is accused of assaulting a 31-year-old family friend at his residence on Nov. 2 after she declined his offer of a massage, according to the charge sheet.
"I wish to state clearly that I am innocent of these charges," Zuma said in a statement after the brief appearance. "I regard these allegations against me very seriously as I abhor any form of abuse against women."
President Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma in June after he was implicated in a bribery scandal involving his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, and French arms dealers. The dismissal opened a rift within the ANC, where Zuma retains huge support among left-leaning members as well as the party's trade union and South African Communist Party allies.
Zuma's supporters maintain the corruption charges are part of a smear campaign intended to destroy the political career of the man once considered most likely to succeed Mbeki when he completes his second and final term in 2009.
The rape charge is more damaging politically in a country confronting high levels of abuse against women and children, and analysts said Zuma was unlikely to recover.
Some supporters have already started distancing themselves from Zuma since the rape allegations surfaced in local newspapers last month.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions and South African Communist Party, who have been vocal supporters of Zuma, issued muted statements Tuesday calling for a speedy trial but did not comment on the merits of the case.
Zuma said the intense media speculation that preceded the indictment had prejudiced his chance of a fair trial.
He said he had informed ANC Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe that he would temporarily withdraw from leadership meetings due to the severity of the charge. But he said this would not affect his title of party deputy president, the AP reports.