Lawyers in South Africa are threatening court action against President Jacob Zuma unless he orders the release of 270 miners facing murder charges after police shot dead 34 of their colleagues at a protest.
Unless Zuma takes action by midday Sunday, the firm of Maluleke, Msimang and Associates wrote in an open letter on Thursday, they will file an urgent application with the High Court demanding the men's release.
The lawyers representing 270 miners said that their clients had clearly not killed their fellow miners and that it was "unlawful" to keep them in custody while a special judicial inquiry established by Zuma conducts its investigation.
“It is inconceivable that the South African state, of which you are the head, and any of its various public representatives, officials and citizens, can genuinely and honestly believe or even suspect that our clients murdered their own colleagues and in some cases, their own relatives,” the firm wrote, according to News24.
|The shootings were the worst act of police violence since the end of apartheid in 1994 [EPA]
Prosecutors charged the miners on Thursday, using "common purpose" doctrine that was favoured by the former apartheid regime and which attributes criminal liability to every member of a conspiracy for all the consequences that follow.
Police opened fire on a crowd of miners engaged in a strike at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana on August 16.
Video showed a densely packed crowd of miners, some armed with clubs and machetes, approaching heavily armed police, who claimed self-defence in the shooting. The incident was the climax of an escalating standoff between rival unions that had already killed 10 people, including two police officers.
The strikers were demanding their monthly wages be more than doubled to 12,500 rand, or roughly $1,500. Lonmin, the world's third biggest platinum producer, says the workers already earn around 10,000 rand when bonuses and other compensation are included.
Separately, more than 150 of the arrested miners have filed complaints that they have been beaten up in police cells by officers, the Independent Police Complaints Directorate reported earlier this week.
Justice minister demands explanation
Funerals are due to be held on Saturday for many of the workers killed at the Marikana mine, which lies outside Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg.
On Friday South Africa's justice minister demanded that prosecutors explain why the arrested miners had been charged, a move widely denounced by legal experts.
A spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority told the media it was normal procedure to charge those arrested during a confrontation with police when fatalities resulted.
Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said the decision "induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion" among South Africans.
“I have requested the acting National Director of Public Prosecutions, advocate Nomgcobo Jiba, to furnish me with a report explaining the rationale behind such a decision,” Radebe said in a statement.
The shooting was the deadliest act of police violence since apartheid ended in 1994 and has sparked a national outcry.
"It's the police who were shooting, but they were under attack by the protesters, who were armed, so today the 270 accused are charged with the murders" NPA spokesman Frank Lesenyego said.
Meanwhile, Gold Fields, a gold mining company, reported on Friday that about 12,000 employees had downed tools, apparently over disagreements with organised labour and related structures on its Kloof Driefontein Complex mine, the local Mining Weekly Online reported.
The company was granted an urgent interdict to bring the unprotected strike at the East section of its KDC mine on South Africa’s West Rand to an end.