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New Judge, Selby Mbenenge, appointed to preside over Omotoso trial

By Afikile Lugunya - Mar 15, 2019
New Judge, Selby Mbenenge, appointed to preside over Omotoso trial

Port Elizabeth -The trial of controversial Nigerian televangelist and Senior Pastor of the Jesus Dominion International church, Tim Omotoso, is now set to recommence in the Port Elizabeth High Court after a new judge was introduced on Friday morning.

The new presiding Judge in the Omotoso trial is Selby Mbenenge.

Judge Mbenenge was appointed after former presiding Judge Mandela Makaula decided to step down from the trial after the Defence accused him of being biased towards the State.

The new Judge had to adjourn proceedings after the Port Elizabeth High Court was affected by load shedding.

When the lights came back on, he announced that the Omotoso trial will resume on the 30th of July. 

It probably means key State Witness, Cheryl Zondi, will have to be called back again to take the stand and give evidence against Omotoso.

Makaula recused himself even before the Constitutional Court could hear an application by Omotoso's lawyers, who since last year sought his removal from the trial - delaying the trial by many months.

This is also despite the defense - led by attorney, Peter Daubermann, losing its bid in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in December, to have Judge Makaula step down.

Makaula had also dismmissed an application by the Omotoso lawyers for leave to appeal his decision to not recuse himself from the trial.

Reasons why Omotoso defense wanted Judge Makaula gone

Judge Makaula had been accused of protecting the first witness on the Omotoso case, Cheryl Zondi, while she was being cross-examined.

“I can see that you are crying or emotional, are you still okay? Do you need a break? Do we wish that we adjourn so that you may compose yourself,” Makaula once asked Zondi.

When she appeared for the last time after days of cross-examination by the defense, the State revealed that Zondi has missed an exam while she was in court.

In the following week, Zondi was expected to write more tests and Judge Makaula took an opportunity to wish her luck.

The Judge told her not to worry about what is going on in court, but to focus on her exams, that’s what triggered Daubermann to want Judge Makaula gone.

He added that the meaning of what judge Makaula said can be easily interpreted as "meaning that you go and write exams and I'll sort this man out."

Daubermann said that Makaula had to go “because it is clear that his client will not get a fair trial”.

Judge Makaula allegedly linked to Omotoso trial State Witness accommodation 

It was revealed that Judge Makaula was linked indirectly through a company he owns to an accommodation establishment that has been used to house unnamed State Witnesses in the Omotoso trial.

On Friday, he said that the media reported false information when they said that he owned a building was used by the State Witnesses.

Makaula said that his wife has financial interest in the building.

He added that the public must not be mislead into thinking that he is excusing himself from the Omotoso trial because of Daubermann, but he is doing it for the interest of justice.

The applications to have Judge Makaula step down had delayed the trial that was expected to conclude in December.

The trial itself had been postponed to April, pending the outcome of the Defence's application to the Constitutional Court.

Omotoso arrested at PE International Airport

Omotoso has been a languishing at the St Albans Correctional Facility, just outside Port Elizabeth, since his arrest at the Port Elizabeth International Airport in April 2017.

He had just landed at the Port Elizabeth International Airport after evading arrest for days when the scandal came out.

At the airport, Omotoso apparently tried to avoid arrest by first lying about his flight's arrival time then hiding in public toilets at the airport when he found armed officers waiting for him.

He later made two attempts to get bail, which failed.

Two women, who are alleged to have been responsible for recruiting and grooming girls for the 59-year-old Pastor, Lusanda Solani (36) and Zukiswa Sitho (28), were also arrested last year.

Omotoso and co-accused refused to plead

At the start of the trial last year, Defence attorney, Peter Dauberman, also explained to Judge Makaula that his clients "refuse to plead to all the charges against them”.

Omotoso, Solani and Sitho are facing 97 charges in total including for racketeering, sexual assault and rape. 63 of those charges constitute the main charge sheet while 34 are alternative charges.

Judge Makaula then was forced to put on record that a "not guilty" plead would be recorded on their behalf.

This is not the first time something like this has happened in the court. Earlier this year, a Zimbabwean man accused of killing another Zimbabwean man in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth over a lover, Trust Tofa, also refused to plead and the judge was forced to enter "not guilty" plea on his behalf.

One of the victims and the State's first witness, Chery Zondi, detailed how she joined the church and was later sexually abused by Omotoso at his Durban home.

She also linked one of Omotoso's co-accused, Lusanda Solani, to the abuses.

Still, the accused refused to plead to all the charges against them.

Defense lawyer Daubermann was joined by famous Defense Advocate, Terry Price, in a bid to quash the charges against Omotoso or have presiding Judge, Mandela Makaula, removed.

Price became famous while defending disgraced Port Elizabeth businessman and convicted murderer, Christopher Panayiotou.

Omotoso followers seek interdict against ANC et al

In November, congregants from the Jesus Dominion International (JDI) church also applied the Port Elizabeth High Court to interdict the African National Congress and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as well as other respondents from marching against the church or calling them names - apparently the church members had called “cult worshipers”.

The members subsequently withdrew their case.

Drama at the Omotoso trial

The Omotoso trial has so far not been without its drama after two women were thrown out of court after claiming to be Omotoso's security detail:

Daubermann was also confronted by an angry mob over his cross-examination of Zondi:

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