A corruption case against South African firebrand politician Julius Malema was thrown out Tuesday after three years of delays, a judge said.
Malema, who heads the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), had been accused of fraud, corruption and racketeering linked to a government contract won six years ago when he headed the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The trial was set to start this week but hit a dead end Monday when one of Malema`s four co-accused was absent after being hospitalised.
It was the third delay since the group was charged three years ago.
In the Polokwane High Court on Tuesday, Judge Billy Mothle refused to postpone the case again, calling it "a delay too long for the accused".
"The case is struck from the roll," he told the accused. "You are now free to go."
The decision gives Malema a major boost ahead of local elections in 2016, although Mothle also warned him the National Prosecuting Authority may choose to reinstate the charges in the future.
Speaking to the media outside the court where a large crowd of his supporters danced and sang in celebration, Malema said he was ready for the possibility of finding himself back in the dock.
"If they want to bring it, let them bring it afresh -- I am not scared of them," he said.
Malema and four business associates were accused of lying to win a government construction contract worth 52 million rand ($4.1 million, 3.7 million euros) in his home province of Limpopo.
But the politician, who has won a reputation as President Jacob Zuma`s most vocal critic, insisted the charges were simply "persecution" by his former allies in the ANC.
"I know because we are dealing with dogs they are going to manufacture something new," he said outside court. "They are free to do that."
Booted out of the ANC for sowing indiscipline three years ago, Malema went on to create the far left EFF, which secured 25 parliamentary seats in the 2014 national elections, just months after its formation.