A South African court on Tuesday suspended the corruption trial of firebrand politician Julius Malema, pushing the high-profile case against the self-appointed graft-buster back by nearly a year.
Malema, who heads the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, faces charges of fraud, corruption, money-laundering and racketeering linked to a $5 million government contract won five years ago.
The 33-year-old, who won fame railing against graft in South African politics, insists the charges are part of "persecution" by his former allies, now foes, in the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The trial, delayed for second time in under a year, was forced by the non-availability of a defence lawyer for one of Malema`s co-accused.
Malema said he would have wanted to be tried separately to speed up the process, but the judge said it was logistically not possible until next year.
"The possibilities of an unfair trial are very high," Malema charged, while adding: "We remain unshaken."
A sea of some 500 supporters, chanting "Hands Off Our Commander-in-Chief", rallied outside the courthouse in the northern city of Polokwane, where police had erected razor-wire barricades to keep them at a distance.
"You have covered our backs," Malema told his followers after leaving court, dressed in a dark grey suit, white shirt and red tie.
"The masses are never wrong, the masses can see through conspiracy, the masses can see persecution, the masses can see a political agenda that seeks to undermine the leadership of the revolution," he shouted to a roar of approval from the crowd.
Malema`s supporters, many dressed in red berets and T-shirts and dancing to music in front of the tribunal, slammed the proceedings as politically motivated.
"The problem is that political influence has made him to be seen as if he has done corruption," said TJ Malatjie, an electrician. "We do feel that he is innocent."The trial, now scheduled to open on August 3, 2015, and expected to run for a month, brings into sharp -- and ironic -- focus the drive against graft in South African politics.
Last month Malema led chants of "Pay Back the Money" aimed at his political arch-foe President Jacob Zuma, plunging parliament into chaos.
He wants Zuma to cough up the $24 million of taxpayers` money spent on "security upgrades" at his private rural home.
New details have also emerged in local media this week of how Zuma is also said to have accepted a bribe from French electronics and defence firm Thales, allegedly uttering the coded phrase: "I see the Eiffel Tower lights are shining today."
The government denies any wrongdoing over its 1999 multi-billion dollar arms deal, and on Tuesday, Thales issued a statement saying it "disputes the allegations in the most categorical manner."
Malema himself, along with four business associates, is accused of lying to win a public works construction contract in his home province of Limpopo, worth 52 million rand ($4.6 million, 3.6 million euros).
The proceeds are alleged to have been used to help buy Malema a luxury Mercedes Benz Viano and a large farm.
If convicted, he could spend a maximum of 15 years in jail and be asked to pay a large fine.
He would also automatically lose his seat in parliament, where he is endlessly posing troublesome questions for Zuma.
A former ANC stalwart, Malema was booted out of the party for sowing indiscipline two years ago.
He went on to create the Economic Freedom Fighters, which secured 25 parliamentary seats in the May elections, just months after its formation.
The former leader of the ANC`s Youth League has alleged that his prosecution is punishment for his high-profile dispute with the head of state.
He vowed never to be silenced by a party he described as intolerant to "dissent".
"Once you disagree with them politically they say you are an enemy and therefore they use the state power to try and silence you," Malema told his followers outside the tribunal. "They are not going to succeed."
“We believe that there`s no case against us."
Malema is out on 10,000 rand ($888) bail.