LAWYERS representing about 140 members of the South African National Defence Union (Sandu) withdrew their services on Friday after failing to convince the Heidelberg military court to grant them postponement for at least two weeks.
The move will disrupt the trial of 225 soldiers who went on a rampage at the Union Buildings in 2009 during a protest to demand higher wages.
The withdrawal came after presiding Judge Col Leonard Nkasana refused the union a further postponement due to the unavailability of the lawyers who had prearranged commitments on other trials.
Judge Col Nkasana refused the application for postponement on the grounds that the lives of the soldiers, who had been on suspension since August 2009, had been disrupted for too long. He said Sandu’s legal representatives and the prosecution were warned during the postponement in June that the trial should begin in October.
The accused are facing a combination of charges of public violence and absence without leave, especially those who were based in the Johannesburg barracks and were alleged to have led the march to the Union Buildings.
A few who were stationed in Zeerust in the North West and Thohoyandou in Limpopo are facing a third and separate charge of absence without leave for failing to respond to the commanding officer’s roll-call, but are excluded from the first charge of public violence because the state cannot place them at the alleged crime scene.
Sandu national secretary Pikkie Greeff told the military court the union wanted a postponement to grant it the opportunity to file an urgent application in the South Gauteng High Court for an interdict that would halt the trial.
It also believed the high court could rule in a manner that would force the prosecution to provide all evidence and information it had against the accused to prepare for the trial based on the charge sheet.
Furthermore, the legal representatives of Sandu members needed the break to attend to other trials scheduled long before this case.
When the lawyers announced their withdrawal from the case, Judge Col Nkasana told Sandu members to get their house in order and ensure they were represented on Tuesday when the trial would resume.
Lacking legal representatives, the members could ask the judge for time to find replacements, who would also require time to consult the accused.
"It is unfortunate that the judge could not assist us (legal representatives), and the step we have taken could disrupt the trial and delay it even further," Mr Greeff said at the weekend. "A new firm has been briefed to take over and we hoped that the court would give the new legal representatives some time to properly consult the accused in order to prepare."
Early on Friday, Judge Col Nkasana thwarted the attempts of the military defence counsel representing about 70 nonmembers of Sandu to have him recuse himself on the grounds that he had helped the prosecution draft a new charge sheet after they had pointed out its defaults.
The judge dismissed the application, citing several high court rulings where magistrates were criticised by the higher courts for failing to help the prosecution craft proper charges.
The trial continues on Tuesday.