Story highlights

South Africa's justice minister demands an explanation of the charges

270 miners were charged with the murder of 34 coworkers believed shot by police

The minister says the decision shocked the public

The miners' lawyers want their clients released by Sunday afternoon

Johannesburg, South Africa CNN —  

South Africa’s justice minister also sought an explanation on why the other miners were charged with murder.

The government’s decision “has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public,” Justice Minister Jeffrey Radebe said in a statement.

“It is therefore incumbent upon me to seek clarity on the basis upon which such a decision is taken in my capacity as minister of Justice and Constitutional Development,” Radebe said.

The justice minister said “it is inconceivable” to suspect that the miners killed their colleagues and relatives.

In the letter to Zuma, the legal firm of Maluleke, Msimang and Associates said the government’s decision to charge the miners with murder is “bizarre in the extreme,” state-run broadcaster SABC reported.

“It is inconceivable that (you) can genuinely believe or even suspect that our clients murdered their own colleagues and in some cases, their own relatives,” the letter said.

Authorities arrested the miners after a deadly clash with police August 16.

Police spokesman Dennis Adrio said that some of those killed in the clash had gunshot wounds in their backs and that weapons were recovered at the scene.

The fatal incident occurred after negotiations between striking miners and mining company Lonmin broke down and police decided to fence in the machete-armed miners with barbed wire, police said.

The protesting miners moved toward police and were driven back with tear gas and rubber bullets. Police said they resorted to live ammunition when protesters attacked, leaving 34 people dead and 78 others wounded.

Thousands of mineworkers went on strike for days last month to demand higher wages in the Lonmin mine in Marikana, South Africa. Earlier, two police officers had been hacked to death.

Tensions have been high in part because of the presence of competing trade unions: the dominant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the splinter National Union of Mineworkers.

The mine, about two hours northwest of Johannesburg, is operated by Lonmin, the world’s third-largest platinum producer. The bulk of its 28,000 employees work at the mine, and around 23% belong to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Funerals were held Saturday for many of the dead mineworkers.

CNN’s Nkepile Mabuse and Sarah Jones contributed to this report.