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IN AN about-face, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced yesterday that it was provisionally withdrawing murder charges against 270 Lonmin mineworkers that had sparked shock and outrage.
The move has been welcomed by political parties, trade unions and legal experts, who said the miners should never have been charged in the first place.
The decision to withdraw the charges, and to release some of the miners from custody, came after what acting national director of public prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba said were intense deliberations between her office and role-players. It also followed careful scrutiny of all documentation, including that addressed to the president by representatives of the accused.
“Following the deliberations by the [NPA] leadership and after consulting with [the police] leadership I took the decision that the murder charge against the 270 suspects will be formally withdrawn in court at their next appearance,” she said yesterday.
“The protes-ters are to be released conditionally on warning and their case postponed pending the finalisation of investigations including the one by the commission.”
Jiba was flanked by her two deputies – Thoko Majokweni and Asset Forfeiture Unit head Willie Hofmeyr – as well as advocate Johan Smit SC, the North West director of public prosecutions (DPP) at whose feet she laid sole blame for the decision to charge the men with murder.
All the decisions, including the one to add murder charges, had been taken by Smit and members of his prosecutions team, Jiba said.
The withdrawal came after mounting public outcry and condemnation after the charges were laid against the miners last week.
Political parties, legal minds and some ANC members have called it confusing and questioned the pro-secuting authority’s legal strategy.
The move was also labelled bizarre and shocking, with law experts saying the murder charge against the miners represented a flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system in an effort to protect the police and/or politicians such as President Jacob Zuma and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.
The Justice Ministry welcomed the NPA’s decision “but will await formal report as requested”, said Justice Minister Jeff Radebe.
The ANC also welcomed the move.
“This decision will allow the commission of inquiry set up by the president to do its work and for police to continue with their investigations,” party spokesman Jackson Mthembu said.
Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said: “It was absolutely outrageous that they were charged in the first place. We welcome their release and hope they are not kept for longer than necessary.”
National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said the union welcomed the development because the manner in which the mineworkers had been charged was “questionable”.
“You must have sufficient evidence to charge people. You can’t charge over 200 people on the basis that they were there when it happened. We expect police will do thorough investigations and arrest the real culprits.”
The DA deputy spokeswoman on justice, Debbie Schafer, said the decision was the best “under the circumstances. But this still doesn’t answer why the charges were brought in the first place”.
Lawson Naidoo, executive director of the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution (Casac), also welcomed the decision. “The decision to charge them with murder should never have happened in the first place. It was irrational and Jiba ought to have acted immediately.”
Meanwhile, the Friends of the Youth League, associated with axed ANC Youth League head Julius Malema, blamed the Lonmin tragedy on the country’s leadership. Floyd Shivambu of the group said: “If there was leadership in South Africa, the leng-thy, unreasoned, horrible and in-human incarceration of mine-workers who survived the massacre would have been avoided.”
The miners were arrested on August 16 and initially charged with public violence, illegal gathering and attempted murder.
The murder charges were added last week in accordance with what has been branded an apartheid-era law, where miners were deemed to have had a “common purpose” in the murder of their co-workers.
North West director of public prosecutions Johan Smit yesterday explained that the “common purpose” principle came into play when it was taken into consideration that a battle had ensued between the protesters and policemen – the police having fired bullets in the line of duty while the rioters did so illegally.
Explaining why he had added the murder charges, Smit said: “With the evidence we had it was proven and desirable that I put that principle into place.”
He described the case as “live” and said the investigations daily brought in new information, changing decisions by the minute.
Smit said seven suspects were also facing charges for the deaths of the two policeman killed two days before the shootings, one suspect being held for the deaths of two security guards.
“We are still seeking the truth about the murders of the others killed earlier that week, but all of these are totally different cases,” he said.
The first group of miners, 140 in total, whose physical residential addresses had been verified by the police, would be released after a request to the Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate’s Court today.
Jiba said: “Those whose physical residential addresses have not been confirmed by police will remain in custody until the next court appearance on Thursday.”
Court appearances at the Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate’s Court have been characterised by protesting women, some of them wives of the imprisoned men, and calls from several quarters that they be released since allegations of abuse have emerged.
Jiba said that once all investigations, including the one by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and the presidential commission of inquiry, had been done the miners would be recharged.