The murder trial of three men accused of throwing a black farm worker to the lions offers an extreme example of the plight of farm workers in a country that still has a culture of violence, human rights researchers said.

Prosecutors allege that Mark Scott-Crossley (search), a white farmer, and two of his workers attacked Nelson Chisale (search) with machetes last January, beat him, held him at gunpoint, tied him up and then drove him 12 miles to a lion reserve and threw him over the fence where he was devoured.

Chisale had been fired and was attacked when he returned to retrieve belongings, police said.

The trial, which started last week, has generated impassioned protests from demonstrators who see the killing as another racial attack in this country still grappling with its apartheid past.

The gruesome nature of the killing has helped inflame the demonstrators, who have chanted so loudly at times that court officials have had to quiet them.

But human rights researchers interviewed Friday said it wasn't clear that the attack was racially motivated — Scott-Crossley's alleged accomplices are black. They said, though, that it was an extreme example of the violence and abuse regularly meted out to farm workers.

South Africa's Human Rights Commission (search) said in a 2003 report that attacks on farm workers are common.

"Historically in South Africa, farmers see farm workers as part of their property, to do with as they like," the commission's chief, Jody Kollapen, said Friday.

Today as in apartheid South Africa, farm owners are mostly white, their workers mostly black.

Scott-Crossley's black co-defendants, Richard Mathebula and Simon Mathebula — who are not related — argue that they followed the orders of their white employer.

"The public sees a white farmer and a black victim. In South Africa today it is hard to separate race from how these incidents are perceived," said Kollapen.

"We are in conditioned in South Africa to look at race. If a crime can have either a racial or just a criminal motive, conditioning compels us to look at the racial one," he said.

Browyn Harris of the Institute for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (search) in Johannesburg said killings such as that of Chisale highlight the complexities of a country still struggling with its racist past.

"It also is symptomatic of the whole culture of violence that we live with," said Harris.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of murder and violent crime in the world. Harris said that the killing of Chisale was one of the most horrible examples of a culture that has so inured people to violence that sometimes life has no value.

In the trial of Chisale's alleged killers, spectators packed the courtroom Friday in Phalaborwa, 290 miles northeast of Johannesburg, straining to see Chisale's shredded, bloodstained clothes when they were presented during testimony.

Days after Chisale was reported missing, investigators who searched the lion reserve found only a few bones, shreds of clothing and remains of one finger that allowed them to identify the victim from the fingerprint.