Lawyers for 270 miners in South Africa are threatening legal action if their clients are not released from prison today. The mine workers were charged with murdering their own colleagues after police opened fire on a crowd of about 3,000 striking workers two weeks ago, killing 34 people.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton tells us the government charged the miners with murder using an obscure legal doctrine employed by the apartheid government.

South Africa's national prosecuting authority defends its decision to invoke the "common purpose" law, as it's called, which stipulates that when a crime is committed, members of a crowd can be prosecuted as accomplices. Prosecutors argue that the striking workers collectively confronted the police during the deadly clashes at the Marikana Platinum mine, northwest of Johannesburg.

It is unclear if using the "common purpose" law is simply a way to keep the miners in prison, or if prosecutors are intent on pursuing murder charges in court. Invoking the apartheid-era law against the minors appears to shift blame for the killings away from the police and onto the striking workers.

According to CNN, South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe says the prosecutor's decision to charge the miners has "induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion." Radebe says he intends to seek clarity on the reasons behind using the "common purpose" law against the miners.

The National Prosecuting Authority has made no response to Radebe's statements.

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