By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African judge ruled on Tuesday that the murder trial of Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius can be televised, giving millions around the world direct access to one of the most sensational celebrity trials since O.J. Simpson's.
Pistorius, 27, has admitted to shooting his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, at his Pretoria home on Valentine's Day last year, but has said it was a tragic accident in which he had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder.
If convicted of murder, he faces up to life in prison. The trial is due to start March 3.
In a televised ruling in a Pretoria high court, Judge Dustan Mlambo said it was vital that impoverished South Africans who feel ill-treated by the justice system be given a first-hand look at the trial.
"The justice system is still perceived as treating the rich and famous with kid gloves whilst being harsh on the poor and the vulnerable," he said.
"Enabling a larger South African society to be able to follow first-hand criminal proceedings which involve a celebrity, so to speak, will go a long way into dispelling these negative and unfounded perceptions."
Mlambo attached several conditions, including provisos that no recording be allowed during breaks and that no confidential communication between parties involved in the trial be recorded.
He also said the cameras could not take "extreme close-ups" nor record witnesses who did give their consent.
Mlambo said the presiding judge had the discretion to order that broadcasting be stopped if "it becomes apparent that the presence of cameras ... is impeding a particular witness' right to privacy, dignity or the accused's right to a fair trial".
Pistorius' legal team had opposed televising the trial on the grounds it would be intrusive. Local media groups had argued for its televisation under freedom of information principles enshrined in South Africa's post-apartheid constitution.
Double-amputee Pistorius, dubbed the "Blade Runner" for his running prostheses, became a global hero at the London 2012 Olympics when he made it to the 400-metre semi-final against able-bodied athletes.
He was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee before he turned 1, but his track success, supported by his rugged good looks and public charm, saw him elevated to a global symbol of triumph over adversity
The esteem in which he was held only increased the sense of disbelief at his downfall, drawing comparisons to that of golf star Tiger Woods and American footballer Simpson.
The star running back turned actor and popular TV pitch man, was charged in the 1994 stabbing and slashing murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
He was acquitted after a year-long trial in Los Angeles that ranked as one of the world's most-watched criminal proceedings.
The South African media has been gripped by the case, with salacious details about Pistorius and Steenkamp being published on a regular basis as the trial date has drawn near.
On Tuesday, Johannesburg's Star newspaper had a center-spread "Special Report" about the trial, complete with profiles of presiding judge Thokozile Masipa and defense and prosecution attorneys. It also ran a diagram of the bathroom in which Steenkamp was shot dead.
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Sophie Hares)