A white South African farmer and two black employees were accused Monday of killing a black former employee by throwing him into a pen of five lions, which ate him.
Mark Scott-Crossley, 37, Richard Mathebula, 41, and Simon Mathebula, 43, pleaded not guilty to murdering Nelson Chisale, 41, when their trial began in Phalaborwa, in the northeast of the country.
Chisale was allegedly beaten, tied up and thrown to the lions on Jan. 31 last year, the South African Press Association reported.
The father of three was sacked by Scott-Crossley in November 2003 and when he returned to the farm on January 31 to retrieve some pots he was apprehended by Richard Mathebula.
Mathebula's lawyer, Matthews Kekana, said his client had been following his boss's orders. He admitted hitting Chisale with a panga (machete) and tying him to a tree.
Later Scott-Crossley arrived and beat Chisale, stamped on his head and threatened to shoot him with a rifle, but was dissuaded by several people present, Kekane added.
Later that night he drove Chisale and his employees to the Mokwalo White Lion Project at Hoedspruit, near the Kruger national park, where he helped them to throw Chisale into the pit.
Chisale was too heavy for the two men he had asked to do it to lift him on their own, Kekana added.
Police officers said they found a few bones, some shreds of clothing and the remains of one finger in the enclosure. They identified Chisale from the fingerprint.
Nearly 50 people demonstrated outside the court when the trial began, demanding life sentences for all three.
The case has inflamed public opinion. The farmworkers' union and the youth league of the African National Congress say it illustrates how farm owners mistreat their black workers.
The BBC reported Bethuel Rasekhotoma, an ANC youth leader, saying: "We are here to see that justice is being done."
"We want three life sentences plus 100 years," added Abitha Malatji. "All three of them must rot in jail," she said.
Scott-Crossley has spent most of the past year in jail but was released on bail of 250,000 rand (US$42,006) earlier this month.
The two other accused have remained in jail.