A South African court was due to start releasing 270 miners Monday who were arrested after police gunned down 34 of their colleagues, following a decision by prosecutors to withdraw murder charges against them.
Prosecutors provisionally dropped the charges Sunday amid a public furor after officers opened fire on strikers at platinum giant Lonmin’s Marikana mine in the worst day of police violence since the end of apartheid.
“We still have to establish what the numbers (due to be released) are and get a true reflection of what the intention of the prosecution was. The release will start around 2:00 pm (1200 GMT),” lawyer for the detained Mapule Keetse told AFP.
National Prosecuting Authority spokeswoman Bulelwa Makeke said Monday that police had verified the addresses of 140 detainees – a prerequisite for releasing them – by Saturday and that the figure was likely to have increased.
“Those whose physical addresses have been verified will be released … that’s really just the point for today,” she said. The police have been working continuously so as they verify, they add the numbers, so the numbers are a moving target.”
The original decision last Thursday to charge the miners over the August 16 killings during a wildcat strike at the mine northwest of Johannesburg had triggered outrage.
On Friday, South Africa’s justice minister demanded prosecutors explain why the arrested miners had been charged with murdering their colleagues during what was in fact a crackdown by police.
Speaking Sunday, acting national director of prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba said a final decision on whether to press murder charges would be taken after a series of investigations into the shootings.
“The protesters are to be released conditionally … and their case postponed pending the finalisation of investigations,” Jiba stressed.
These include a judicial commission of inquiry appointed by President Jacob Zuma, which has until January to present its findings.
Lawyers for the mineworkers have argued that their detention is unlawful, and demanded their release in an open letter to Zuma.
The president however has refused to act on their demand, arguing that it would be interfering with the work of the judiciary.
Legal experts had slammed the charges, which the prosecuting agency argued were under a common purpose principle that allows a group of people to be charged for acting together to commit a criminal act.
It was once used by the apartheid-era white-minority regime to crack down on black activists who were fighting for equality.
The prosecuting agency denied Monday that it had given in to pressure to drop murder charges against the miners.
“There is a provision for a national director to review a decision of a director of public prosecutions. It doesn’t mean it’s buckling,” said spokeswoman Makeke.
The ruling African National Congress welcomed the dropping of the charges and the release of workers, saying it would allow the presidential probe “to do its work and for police to continue with their investigations.”
Police claimed self-defence in the shooting, after an escalating stand-off between rival unions had already killed 10 people including two police officers during an increasingly bitter strike over pay.
The mine remained shut after talks failed to end the strike. The talks resume on Monday.
The striking miners, who say they currently earn 4,000 rand a month (around 375 euros or $475), want a wage increase to 12,500 rand.
Lonmin, the world’s number three platinum producer, says the workers already earn around 10,000 rand when bonuses and other compensation are included.
[Photo via Agence France-Presse]