The trial of a flamboyant Nigerian pastor and televangelist, Timothy Omotoso, arraigned for rape and human trafficking in the South African city of Port Elizabeth has led to public outrage in the country.
The BBC reports that public anger in South Africa reached a crescendo following Mr Omotoso’s lawyer’s aggressive questioning of the pastor’s accuser, Cheryl Zondi, in the televised trial that mimicked the explosive murder trial of former Olympian, Oscar Pistorius.
Mr Omotosho and two female members of his church are facing a 97-count charge of rape and human trafficking. They denied the allegations.
An angry crowd gathered in front of the Jesus Dominion International, Mr Omotoso’s church, forcing it to close its door over the weekend. Mr Omotoso’s lawyer, Peter Daubermann, was also followed and criticised outside the courthouse by a crowd, which was angry by his line of cross-examination of the accuser.
Ms Zondi, a 22-year-old student, specifically accused Mr Omotoso, 60, of raping her from when she was 14.
According to media reports, Mr Zondi, who was the first prosecution witness, was composed as she recounted her ordeal under the pastor. She narrated how Mr Omotoso quoted psalms and threatened her with ”God’s anger” if she refused to comply with his sex demands. She said he raped her a year after she became a member of the church.
But while cross-examining her, Mr Daubermann accused her of lying, calling her a “good actress”.
“I put it to you that you are lying about what happened to you. You were prepared to let him rape you?
“You basically consented?” he asked, referring to later alleged sexual incidents when Ms Zondi was an adult.
“How many centimetres? Do you know?” he asked Ms Zondi, after she had described how the pastor had allegedly partially penetrated her, at the age of 14.
“How would she know that?” Judge Mandela Makaula interrupted, visibly angry.
“She could have felt it,” suggested Mr Daubermann.
“And measured it at the same time? No. I will not allow that question,” declared the judge, who went on to thank Ms Zondi for her testimony and wish her good luck in the university exams she had interrupted in order to attend the trial.
“This is not about you. This is about justice,” he told her.
His line of questioning seems to have triggered a section of the South African populace who said he crossed a line. Among them was Ndileka Mandela, the granddaughter of the late father of the country, Nelson Mandela, who alleged she was also raped by a former boyfriend in 2017.
Ms Mandela said Ms Zondi ‘s case was similar to the #MeToo movement adding that her treatment in the witness box underscores the reason why many rape victims in the country choose to remain silent.
“I really feel pain for this young woman and I am so proud to see how courageous she’s been on the witness stand,” Ms Mandela told South Africa’s Sunday Times Newspaper.
“Cheryl has set a precedent and we can only pray other victims will be encouraged by this. We salute her,” a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority told reporters.
South Africa is grappling with a rape epidemic with at least 100 women reporting being raped to the police daily.
Meanwhile, Mr Omotoso’s defence team has accused the judge of bias, asking him to recuse himself from the trial, a demand which the judge turned down.
“You aligned yourself with her cause. You have already accepted her version,” Mr Daubermann told the judge. He also condemned the media coverage of the trial.
“I’ve been vilified in the media for my cross-examination. I’ve been accused of adopting questionable methods of examination. That is blatantly false. I have to test the veracity of the evidence. I can’t allow sensibilities to get in the way of my duty,” he added.
South African media is also reporting that Mr Omotoso and his wife have been acting in a manner ”that tend to undercut the seriousness of the trial”.
Mr Omotoso, though relaxed, has been reportedly caught smiling many times during the trial while his wife was chastised by the judge for laughing and commenting on Ms Zondi’s evidence.