Eighteen police officers arrested in connection with alleged hit squad activities in the Durban Organised Crime Unit at Cato Manor were granted bail on Friday.
The Durban Regional Court released the men on R5000 bail each, and ordered them to report each Friday to their nearest police station. Magistrate Sharon Marks also ordered them not to contact any witnesses.
The 18 face 71 charges which include 14 of murder, 14 of unlawful possession of ammunition, 14 of unlawful possession of firearms, and four of house-breaking.
When Marks announced they had been granted bail there were sighs to be heard in the packed court room. The moment she left the room, the public gallery, which was packed with family and friends of the policemen, erupted in shouts of joy and clapping.
"Justice has been served," the men's lawyer, Carl van der Merwe, said.
State prosecutor Raymond Mathenjwa had argued during the bail hearing, that started on Thursday, that the men were not beyond intimidating witnesses.
He said many of the witnesses that the Hawks and Independent Police Investigative Directorate team had interviewed were terrified of the officers.
Mathenjwa said he expected more charges to be brought against the men within the next two weeks.
However, advocate Guido Penzhorn argued the officers had been aware of the investigations against them since December, and the prosecution had not presented any proof that evidence had been tampered with, witnesses interfered with, or that the officers were a flight risk.
He said investigating officer Colonel Frans Khola's testimony that he could have executed search and arrest warrants next week was proof the investigating task team was not concerned about evidence being tampered with or witnesses interfered with.
It was a proposition Marks agreed with. He said the prosecution had not tendered any proof of claims of intimidation. She said it was "notable" that the accused had congregated at their offices to hand themselves over for arrest.
"There is no evidence that they attempted to get rid of any evidence. They did not attempt to flee. They were willing to hand themselves over."
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said investigations in the case had been completed, and that it was purely a matter of getting a date at the High Court for the trial to proceed.
The 71 charges relate to the unit's investigations into gang warfare. The Hawks and IPID task team were however also still investigating the deaths of people, allegedly at the hands of the Cato Manor unit, when it probed taxi violence and ATM bombing.
Charges against two other officers were withdrawn on Thursday.
Mhaga would not be drawn into the reasons for their withdrawal and would not confirm whether the two men, who were members of the National Intervention Unit, had become state witnesses.
The 18 men are: Gonasagern Padayachee, 44, Adriaan Stolz, 51, Paul Mostert, 51, Eric Nel, 41, Captain Neville Eva, 45, Adjithsingh Ghaness, 41, Phumelela Makhanya, 45, Willem Ollivier, 59, Peter George, 51, Thembinkosi Mkhwanazi, 47, Mhlabunzima Thabethe, 49, Thathayiphi Mdlalose, 48, Charles "Johnny" Smith, 40, Jeremy Marten, 39, Rubendren "Shane" Naidoo, 33, Raymond Lee, 31, Anton Lockem, 44, and Bruce McInness, 43.
They are expected back in the Durban Regional Court on August 24, for a Hogh Court trial date to be set. - Sapa