South Africa: Minister objects to mass miners charge

Justice Minister demands prosecutors explain applying apartheid-era 'common purpose' law

South Africa's Justice Minister told prosecutors yesterday to explain their controversial decision to charge 270 demonstrators at Marikana platinum mine with the murders of 34 colleagues who were shot by police. Jeff Radebe said the decision to charge the protesters under the apartheid-era "common purpose" doctrine had "induced shock, panic and confusion" among South Africans reeling from the country's worst violence since apartheid.

On 16 August, 34 demonstrators at the Lonmin mine northwest of Johannesburg were shot dead and another 78 were injured when police opened fire.

Initially, the men arrested during the incident were charged with public violence. But on Tuesday, the National Prosecution Agency (NPA) sparked outrage when it said they would also face 44 counts of murder and attempted murder for the deaths of their colleagues and 10 others – including two police officers and two security guards – who died at Marikana the week before.

Stephen Tuson, an attorney at Wits Law Clinic, welcomed the minister's move saying the "common purpose" rule would be difficult to prove. The rule would require prosecutors to show that the miners had actively provoked the shootings, for example by throwing rocks or urging murder, he said.

But other observers said Mr Radebe's intervention raised questions about the independence of the judiciary. The NPA falls under the Justice Ministry but is supposed to act independently, and there is a debate in South Africa about the point and level at which it is acceptable for the NPA to be overruled.

The NPA, meanwhile, is standing firm. It argues that the use of "common purpose" is justified in a case where "co-perpetrators may be held liable for the death of members of their group or of others where there is enough evidence of foreseeing that death may result as a consequence of their collective action, and nonetheless proceeding with that action".

It confirmed that charges brought at the men's ongoing bail hearing were murder, attempted murder, public violence, illegal gathering, possession of dangerous weapons, and possession of firearms and ammunition.

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