PORT ELIZABETH - Port Elizabeth High Court Judge Mandela Makaula on Friday recused himself from the human trafficking trial involving controversial Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso.

The recusal came after it emerged that state witnesses had stayed at a guesthouse linked to the judge. 

It has, however, been established that Judge Makaula did not own any property used to house State witnesses and neither would he have known where witnesses were being accommodated. 

It was previously reported that State Advocate Nceba Ntelwa had apparently disclosed that certain State witnesses had stayed in a guesthouse owned by Makaula. 

According to a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the Eastern Cape, written by defence attorney Peter Daubermann, this revelation was made by Ntelwa during talks between the parties in chambers last month.

It emerged on Friday that Makaula's wife in fact owned the business, under a close corporation, and was the sole member. 

Purely for the sake of caution, Makaula said that he declared his wife's business interests to The Office of the Chief Justice from the year of its formation as well as annually. 

"I have no financial interests and play no role in its affairs," Makaula told the court on Friday. 

Citing reasons for his recusal, Makaula said while he was not involved in any company or legal entity, either as director or shareholder, the apprehension of bias existed. 

"I'm not privy to information held by the State concerning accommodation of State witnesses. Despite the fact there’s no application for me to recuse myself, I’m of the view that it’s the appropriate thing to do.” 

In October last year, Makaula dismissed an application for leave to appeal his earlier decision not to recuse himself. At the time, Makaula said the defence’s argument that he had a “cosy” relationship with key witness Cheryl Zondi was disingenuous and deliberately taken out of context. 

Then late last year the Supreme Court of Appeal turned down Omotoso's application for Judge Makaula to recuse himself and for the charges against the pastor and his co-accused to be quashed. 

Nathi Mcube, spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Justice, explained the administrative process of how witnesses were accommodated. Mcube said that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) would send a request to the Judiciary for traveling and accommodation for witnesses. 

"So officials at the Office of the Chief Justice are given that task. We will not know who the witnesses are or in which case they are participating. All we do is make arrangements. It so happened in this case that they were booked in a guesthouse owned by his wife. He [Makaula] would not have known," said Mcube. 

Meanwhile, Eastern Cape Judge President Selby Mbenenge presided over the matter on Friday, addressing various issues, including the trial starting afresh and future media involvement. 

Daubermann indicated he would in future oppose the media from broadcasting proceedings live. Daubermann also requested that a psychologist be summoned for support when 21 women are called to testify at the trial. The matter now starting afresh, means that a new judge will be appointed and that evidence previously led will have to be presented before court again. So far the court has heard evidence from Zondi, who gave an emotionally charged account of allegedly being raped and sexually groomed while she was a member and singer at Omotoso's Jesus Dominion International Church (JDI). 

Omotoso faces 63 main charges and 34 alternative counts, including human trafficking, rape, sexual assault, racketeering and conspiracy in aiding another person to commit sexual assault. His two co-accused, Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho, are accused of recruiting girls from all over the country for purposes of sexual exploitation. 

The 58-year-old televangelist allegedly trafficked more than 30 girls and women who were from various branches of his church to a house in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, where he allegedly sexually exploited them. 

The pastor was arrested on April 20, 2017, by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, known as the Hawks, at the Port Elizabeth Airport. 

The pastor has been denied bail on two occasions, as he was deemed a flight risk. The women were arrested in November 2017 and are out on bail of R2,000. 

The case was postponed to July 30. 

African News Agency (ANA)