South African courts are due Monday to start releasing 270 miners arrested over the deaths of fellow workers shot by police, after the murder charges against them were provisionally dropped.
Following a public furore, acting national director of prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba said 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“The murder charge against the current 270 suspects, which was provisional anyway, will be formally withdrawn provisionally in court on their next court appearance,” Jiba told reporters.
A final decision will be taken on the charges after a series of investigations into the shootings, which left 34 miners dead, are concluded.
These include a judicial commission of inquiry appointed by President Jacob Zuma, which has until January to present its findings.
Courts will start releasing the miners from Monday after police verify their addresses, Jiba said.
The first batch of at least 140 miners, whose addresses have already been verified, is due to be freed on Monday while the rest should go home by Thursday.
“The protesters are to be released conditionally… and their case postponed pending the finalisation of investigations,” Jiba stressed.
The original decision last Thursday to charge the miners over the August 16 killings during a wildcat strike at the Lonmin platinum mine, in what was the worst police violence since the end of apartheid, had triggered outrage.
The workers have been held in custody since they were arrested on the day of the shootings at Lonmin’s mine in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, which left 34 dead and 78 wounded.
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 mineworkers have argued that their detention is unlawful and in an open letter to Zuma called for their release.
The president however has refused to act on their demand, arguing that it would be interfering with the work of the judiciary.
Jiba said having “noted the concerns voiced” on the charges, she personally took the decision to withdraw the charges.
It was “the decision… that I have made after taking into account all relevant factors that I have before me.”
She also 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-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 at Lonmin’s Marikana mine.
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 4,000 rand a month (around 375 euros or $475) 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.