A judge threw out corruption charges against South African opposition firebrand Julius Malema on Tuesday, a ruling hailed as a major victory by the vocal critic of President Jacob Zuma.
Malema had been accused of money laundering, racketeering and fraud relating to government contracts. But Judge George Mothle said he had waited too long for his trial after a string of postponements, and told him: "You are free to go."
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)said the move did not constitute an acquittal and the action could be revived at a later date. But political analyst Nic Borain said the outcome was an embarrassment and showed the state's "general incompetence to assemble a case".
"If this was a conspiracy to besmirch Malema's name, it looks like it was carried out very poorly," Borain said.
Malema, once a leading figure in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), had regularly dismissed the charges as a government conspiracy to silence and discredit him.
"I stand in front of you, an innocent man," Malema told journalists and supporters outside the Polokwane High Court in his northern home province of Limpopo.
"There are no allegations whatsoever but I know, because we are dealing with dogs, they are going to manufacture something new. They are free to do that."
RENEWED CHARGES POSSIBLE
Malema was expelled from the ANC in 2012 for ill-discipline, in one of the biggest fractures in the party that dominates South African politics.
He now heads the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the second largest opposition group, regularly accuses the government of corruption and presents himself as a champion for impoverished blacks whose lives have changed little since apartheid ended in 1994.
"This is not an acquittal, the matter was just struck off the roll, the department of public prosecutions can be approached to reinstate the matter," National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku told the ENCA television channel.
The charges against Malema related to a government contract worth 52 million rand ($4 million) awarded by a provincial department to a company in which Malema held a stake through his family trust. The contract was for the construction of roads in Malema's home region.
Malema was accused of improperly receiving the cash for the contract in a conspiracy involving state tenders.
Malema, who once headed the ANC's powerful youth wing and played a pivotal part in Zuma's rise to power, has urged the president to pay back millions of dollars of state funds spent on renovating his home.