Families of some of the trapped Chilean miners have launched a legal battle against both the company that owns the mine and the government inspectors who allowed it to reopen two years ago despite concerns over safety.
A judge has ordered the courts to freeze £1.2m assets of the Compania Minera San Esteban – the relatively small company which runs the gold and copper mine where the men are trapped – to cover any future compensation claims. Relatives say they not looking for financial compensation but instead want people to be brought to account for the mine's collapse. Yet figures within Chile's mining industry have accused the family's lawyers of conducting a "witch hunt" that, they say, could threaten productivity in the world's largest copper exporter.
"I'm not thinking of monetary compensation," said Carolina Narvaez, the wife of trapped miner Raul Bustos, according to AFP. "I'm thinking of holding people responsible."
Chief amongst the lawyers complaints are accusations that the mine was allowed to be reopened two years ago after a fatal accident which killed two workers. They also accuse the company of accumulating 42 fines over a six year period from various safety bodies for failing to protect its workers.
Remberto Valdez, a lawyer acting on behalf of some of the miner's families, told reporters: "I can't imagine why – when the mine hasn't met the minimum safety requirements of the Chilean [state] mining company – a specialised service for the Chilean government would allow the mine to operate against the interest of the miners?"
Edgardo Reinoso, a lawyer representing 26 families, said someone had to be held responsible for what had happened. "Luckily they are alive, but the harm that the situation has caused for them and their families is huge," he said. "We have found assets, there is money coming in, and we asked the judge in Copiapo that it be withheld as a precautionary measure."
The company has warned workers that it may have to file for bankruptcy and would be unable to pay the trapped miners their salaries let alone damages from lawsuits. They have been lobbying vigorously for government help to keep the mine open and its workers in full time employment.
Meanwhile, Jorge Pavletic, a board member with the national mining society and industry leader in the mineral-rich Antofagasta region, accused authorities are "overreacting" over safety. "This is a witch hunt that needs to end," he said.