Timothy Omotoso and his co-accused Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho at the Port Elizabeth High Court. PHOTO: Raahil Sain / ANA.

PORT ELIZABETH - The controversial human trafficking trial involving Nigerian televangelist Timothy Omotoso is scheduled to begin again in the Port Elizabeth High Court on Tuesday - before a new judge.

The African News Agency (ANA) has reliably learnt that the trial will be heard by Judge Irma Schoeman. 

The original trial, in which Omotoso faces 63 main charges, including human trafficking, rape and sexual assault, came to an abrupt halt in March when Judge Mandela Makaula recused himself following reports his wife operated a guesthouse where State witnesses in the trial had been accommodated. 

His co-accused, Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho, are accused of recruiting girls from all over the country for purposes of sexual exploitation. 

According to website Judges Matter, Schoeman graduated from the University of Pretoria with a BA and an LLB and worked as a junior lecturer at the University of South Africa before taking up a position as a public prosecutor. After serving articles and working as an attorney, Schoeman joined the Free State Bar in 1997.

Port Elizabeth High Court Judge Irma Schoeman is expected to preside over the controversial human trafficking trial involving Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso. The trial will start afresh on Tuesday. PHOTO: Judges Matter.

Schoeman has been a judge of the Eastern Cape High Court since 2000 and completed several acting stints at the Supreme Court of Appeal between 2013 and 2016.

Schoeman will be overseeing a trial which made headlines before Makaula ended up recusing himself over the guesthouse revelations, saying: “I have no financial interests and play no role in its affairs.”

Citing the reasons for his recusal at the time, 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.” 

The trial is expected to start afresh at the Port Elizabeth High Court on Tuesday which means evidence previously led will have to be presented before court again. 

So far the court has heard evidence from State witness Cheryl 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). 

Throughout Omotoso’s bail hearing and his trial, the case has attracted a large scope of public interest and media attention. 

Journalists have been asked to apply for media accreditation due to the volume of interest, while the number of photographers present during proceedings will be be limited to two.

Dramatic scenes have consistently played out outside the court building when congregants usually gather in their numbers to support the pastor they affectionately refer to as “daddy”. 

Last year, chaos erupted when Omotoso’s lawyer Peter Daubermann was harassed and followed to his car by a group of angry protesters who were at court to support Zondi. 

There was also high drama when an off-duty police woman was kicked outside the court building when she tried to gain access to the trial proceedings. Only after she and another constable produced SA Police Service (SAPS) IDs, were they allowed to enter.

However, security officials soon reported them to the Directorate for Priority Crime investigation (Hawks) chief investigator Warrant Officer Peter Plaatjies, with police saying the two constables had produced their appointment certificates and informed court security that they were there as "protocol observers". 

It was alleged they were there to support Omotoso and police at the time said the matter was under internal investigation.

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.

Omotoso was arrested on April 20, 2017, by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, at the Port Elizabeth Airport. He 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.

African News Agency (ANA)