South Africa has released the first of 270 miners detained more than two weeks ago after police shot dead 34 of their colleagues in a bid to break up a wildcat strike at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine.
“The murder charges against the accused are at this point of time withdrawn,” Magistrate Esau Bodigelo said on Monday as he released dozens of miners in the court in Ga-Rankuwa near Pretoria.
“You may stand down,” he added as applause broke out in the courtroom.
The men were charged last week under an obscure apartheid-era security law with murdering their fellow miners, despite video of the incident clearly showing it was police who fired on the strikers.
State prosecutors provisionally withdrew the murder charges at the weekend following a public outcry.
The releases are being processed in batches with no bail required but the group will return to court on February 12 next year on charges of public violence and for holding an illegal gathering.
“They [the freed miners] were really joyous when they left the court, a sense of triumph even if it is a very small triumph,” Al Jazeera’s Tania Page reported from Ga-Rankuwa on Monday.
“It vindicates them that they were allowed free after there was such an outcry against that murder charge laid against them by the National Prosecuting Authority.”
Although the murder and attempted murder charges were dropped for all 270 arrested miners, not all of them were released on Monday. Police said addresses had to be verified as a condition for their release.
“We were expecting 140 men to walk free from this court on Monday, we didn’t see that,” our correspondent said. “We think it was about 50 or 60, but we understand that on Thursday the remainder of that 270 will walk free from this court as well.”
Murder charges withdrawn
The August 16 shootings by police at the mine northwest of Johannesburg killed 34 miners and wounded 78 others in the worst display of state violence since apartheid ended in 1994.
The 270 miners were arrested and charged shortly after the shooting.
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma also announced the launch of a commission of inquiry to determine what had taken place at Marikana.
The public prosecutor on Sunday provisionally dropped the murder charges brought against the miners.
Murder had been added to the chargesheet last week, after they were originally charged with public violence, illegal gathering and attempted murder.
“The murder charge against the current 270 suspects, which was provisional anyway, will be formally withdrawn provisionally in court on their next court appearance,” Nomgcobo Jiba, acting national director of prosecutions, announced on Sunday. Jiba said other charges would remain.
“It’s going to be several more months, not until after the commission of inquiry, that they [the miners] will find out what the final charges are that will be laid against them,” Al Jazeera’s Page said.
Sunday’s announcement followed a barrage of criticism from political parties, trade unions, civil society and legal experts.
Lawyers for the mineworkers have also argued that their detention is unlawful, and demanded their release in an open letter to President Zuma.
Meanwhile on Monday, at the Gold One gold mine in Springs near Johannesburg, four miners were shot and injured, apparently by security guards using rubber bullets, police said.
Police spokeswoman Pinky Tsinyane said that authorities had arrested four people for public violence.
This comes as a strike at Gold Fields’ KDC, another gold mine, is likely to continue.
The situation is complicated,” said Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from the site of the strike.”Some employees wanted a salary increase to $1,500 per month, and some political players are trying to capitalise on this crisis.”
“A strike in the gold sector would have a bad effect on the economy, in one of the world’s biggest gold producers … It’s worrying investors both in the country and abroad.”
Around 12,000 workers went on strike on Wednesday night last week.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) was not involved in the strike, Sven Lunsche, Gold Fields spokesman said.
AMCU has been blamed for illegal strikes in the platinum sector, including at the Marikana mine, where a total of 44 people were killed last month.
Peter Turner, Gold Fields’ South African head, said on Friday the strike appeared to be the result of disagreements within organised labour.