South Africa said Sunday that controversial murder charges against 270 miners over the deaths of fellow workers shot by police, the worst such clash since the apartheid era, will be provisionally dropped.
Following a public furor, acting national director of prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba, said that after having sought an explanation from the department’s lead prosecutors, she had taken the decision to review the charge.
“The murder charge against the current 270 suspects, which was provisional anyway, will be formally withdrawn provisionally in court on their next court appearance,” Ms. Jiba told reporters.
A final decision on the charges will be taken after a series of investigations into the shootings, hich left 34 dead and 78 wounded, are complete. They include a judicial commission of inquiry appointed by President Jacob Zuma, which has until January to present its findings.
Thursday’s decision to charge the miners over the August 16 killings during a wildcat strike at the Lonmin PLC platinum mine had triggered outrage.
The workers have been held in custody since they were arrested on the day of the shooting in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg.
Courts will start releasing them from Monday after police verify their addresses. The first batch of at least 140 miners is due to be freed on Monday while the rest should go home on Thursday.
On Friday South Africa’s justice minister demanded the prosecutors explain why the arrested miners had been charged with murdering their colleagues, who had been shot dead by police.
Lawyers for the miners have argued that their detention is unlawful and in an open letter to Mr. Zuma have called for their release.
The president however has refused to act on their demand, arguing that would be interfere with the work of the judiciary.
Ms. Jiba defended the initial use of the law with which the miners had been charged.
“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,” she said.
“NPA has applied the principle in many cases before. Its application to this specific case would therefore not be unique,” she added.
Under the common purpose principle, a group of people can be charged for acting together to commit a criminal act. It was once used by the ruling white minority regime to crack down on black activists who were fighting for equality.
Police claimed self-defense in the shooting, after an escalating standoff between rival unions had already killed 10 people including two police officers during an increasingly bitter strike over pay.
The mine remained shut after the failure of talks to end strike action. The talks resume on Monday.
The striking miners want a wage increase from $469 a month to $1,468.
Lonmin, the world’s number three platinum producer, says the workers already earn around $1,174 when bonuses and other compensation are included.