South African prosecutors yesterday dropped murder charges against 270 striking miners after being criticised for using an apartheid-era law to hold them liable for the deaths of 34 fellow workers shot by police.
The mine workers will be released from prison and the case postponed until a judicial commission of inquiry completes its work, acting national director of prosecutions, Nomgcobo Jiba, said yesterday. However, the murder charges could be reinstated following the investigation, she said.
South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said on Friday the decision by the National Prosecuting Authority to pursue murder charges against the strikers had caused "shock, panic and confusion".
Police killed the workers at Lonmin Plc's platinum mine in Marikana, in North West province, on August 16 as they tried to disperse them following a six-day stand-off. Prosecutors charged the strikers last week with murder under the "common purpose" law, which the white minority government had used in the past to crack down on anti-apartheid protesters.
"The protesters are to be released conditionally on warning and their case postponed pending the finalisation of investigations including the investigations by the commission," Jiba said. "The decision to institute murder charges against the miners is based on a sound legal principle which has not only been part of our legal system for decades, but continues to remain relevant and applicable in our democratic dispensation.
"The decision and pronouncement on final charges to be preferred against any persons involved will only be made once all investigations have been completed," said Jiba.
The miners will be released today if their addresses have been verified, Jiba said.
In addition to murder, the miners had faced charges of attempted murder, public violence, illegal gathering, possession of dangerous weapons and possession of firearms and ammunition, the NPA has said. The NPA's head of North West province, Johan Smit, had personally approved the charges.
Towards the end of white minority rule in 1994 and under increased internal and external pressure from opponents, the state relied more on the provisions of the Riotous Assembly Act of 1956 as well as the common purpose doctrine in an attempt to criminalise the actions of all people involved in protest action, according to Pierre De Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town. The law was never struck off the statute books after democracy in 1994, unlike many similar apartheid laws, he said on a weblog on Friday.
Top members of the ruling African National Congress had also expressed dismay at the charges as a public backlash gathered.
"We are all surprised and confused by the National Prosecuting Authority's legal strategy," the ANC's chief whip in parliament said on Friday.
President Jacob Zuma has set up a judicial commission of inquiry to probe the shootings, the deadliest police action since the end of apartheid. Police said they acted in self- defence after being shot at from the crowd of about 3,000 strikers as they were being dispersed.
Zuma won't intervene to release the miners, his office said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
The Lonmin mine remains closed with talks between management and workers due to resume this week.
Lawyers for the mine workers have argued that their detention is unlawful and, in an open letter, called on Zuma to release them.
In all, 44 people were killed in the wave of violence stemming from an illegal strike and union turf war.
Additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse