A South African court was due to start releasing 270 miners yesterday arrested over the deaths of 34 of their colleagues killed by police, after prosecutors withdrew murder charges against them.
Prosecutors provisionally dropped the charges on Sunday amid a public outrage 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.
Lawyers were waiting for the detainees to be brought to court near Pretoria early yesterday afternoon.
“The release will start around 2pm,” lawyer for the detained Mapule Keetse said.
A dozen onlookers stood by outside the court precinct with a handful of family members and one poster urging “Release Innocent Workers.”
“We heard a promise to say maybe they’ll release somebody,” said a woman, who did not want to be identified, sitting outside a courtroom where she had come to support her brother-in-law.
National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokeswoman Bulelwa Makeke said police had verified the addresses of 140 detainees — a prerequisite for releasing them — by Saturday and that the figure was likely to have increased.
“The police have been working continuously so as they verify, they add the numbers, so the numbers are a moving target,” she said.
The original decision on Thursday last week to charge the miners over the Aug. 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 on 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.
These include a judicial commission of inquiry appointed by South African 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.
However, the president 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.
Minister in The Presidency Collins Chabane denied the government played a part in the about-turn.
“The government did not at any stage try to pressurize the NPA people to take a decision,” he told foreign correspondents.
Police claimed self-defense 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 resumed yesterday and South African Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant was upbeat about a breakthrough.
“There is that possibility,” that the workers will report for work today, she said.