CAPE TOWN (AFP) - A South African judge on Monday acquitted British millionaire businessman Shrien Dewani of murdering his bride on their honeymoon, saying the state had not adequately made the case against him.
Judge Jeannette Traverso said the prosecutors' arguments had "fallen far below" the level needed to secure a conviction, paving the way for Dewani to walk free without mounting a defence.
The ruling is a blow to the reputation of South Africa's state prosecutors, coming after a lengthy and costly battle to extradite Dewani from Britain.
Dewani's lawyers applied for his discharge at the end of the state's case, arguing that the evidence against him was so weak he should be acquitted. Traverso agreed, giving a scathing view of key state witnesses. She said evidence given by taxi driver Zola Tonga that implicated Dewani in a murder plot was "highly improbable," while a prosecution witness was described as a "self-confessed liar".
Prosecutors had accused Dewani, 34, of hiring hitmen to kill his 28-year-old Swedish bride Anni on their 2010 Cape Town honeymoon in a staged hijacking because he is a gay man who felt trapped into marriage by family pressures. Dewani says he is bisexual and loved Anni.
After the ruling was read out Dewani left the dock and greeted his weeping mother.
The dead woman's family left the Western Cape High Court in shock. They had earlier urged the judge to make sure that Dewani testified. "Don't let Shrien Dewani walk away without giving us, South Africa and people from all over the world the full story," Anni Dewani's brother Anish Hindocha said ahead of the ruling.
Traverso said she had heard those calls, but had to apply the law rather than emotion.
Both families - the Dewanis and the Hindochas - are of Indian origin, and have sat on opposite sides of the courtroom throughout weeks of sensational testimony.
The driver of the hijacked taxi and one of the hijackers - both serving long jail terms for the murder - testified that Dewani hired them for 15,000 rand (S$1,738) to kill his wife. Dewani's lawyer Francois van Zyl argued that their evidence was full of contradictions and "cannot safely be relied upon".
According to South Africa's Criminal Procedure Act, an accused can be declared not guilty at the close of the prosecution case if the court feels there is insufficient evidence to show he or she committed the crime.
Dewani returned to Britain within days of the murder in November 2010 and fought a three-year legal battle to avoid being extradited to South Africa, claiming he had mental health problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress. But he was sent back to South Africa in April, where he was found fit to stand trial.