South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in a much-postponed corruption case dating back more than two decades.
The 79-year-old faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms for 30 billion rand, then the equivalent of nearly $5 billion.
Zuma -- who at the time was president Thabo Mbeki's deputy -- is accused of accepting bribes totalling four million rand from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales.
Zuma was impassive as he faced the court in the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, where numerous supporters and relatives were gathered.
Impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit and a red tie, wearing an anti-coronavirus mask, he was repeatedly asked by the judge, Piet Koen, to confirm in person the response of his attorney, given "the magnitude of what we're dealing with."
"I plead not guilty," Zuma said without hesitating.
Thales also pleaded not guilty to charges of corruption and money laundering.
The company's lawyers told the court that Thales never paid bribes to Zuma in order to prevent any investigation into the arms sale.
Zuma's plea concludes years of delay in the long-awaited trial, which many South Africans say will deliver the verdict of history on his turbulent presidency.
The ex-leader's lawyers asked to have the prosecution's lawyer Billy Downer recused, accusing him of bias.
"His right to a fair trail is what is at stake," pleaded Zuma's defence advocate Dali Mpofu.
The next hearing has been set for July 19 and prosecutors are expected to call around 200 witnesses throughout the course of the trial.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced Zuma to resign in 2018 after a mounting series of scandals.
Under his nine-year tenure, say critics, corruption and cronyism flourished, and billions of dollars in state assets and business were siphoned off.
His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has vowed to stamp out graft, but is meeting resistance from pro-Zuma figures who command grassroots support in the ANC.