Rotting in Mozambique's jails
‘They say I killed my mother,” said Ana Silvia* when I asked her why she was in prison. She told me she was 17 – born on Christmas Day 1994 and arrested 15 months before Amnesty International’s visit, which means she was only 15 years old at the time of her arrest. Her detention was illegal, according to Mozambican law.
It was February 2012. I was part of an Amnesty International and Mozambique Human Rights League delegation visiting five prisons in the Mozambican provinces of Maputo and Nampula, as well as other detention facilities. Silvia’s case was just one of hundreds of unlawful arrests and detentions we found there. Many have been documented in an Amnesty International report released on November 22.
“Did you kill your mother?” I asked Silvia. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t have any knowledge of that.”
She looked confused and frustrated. Mozambican law does not allow anyone to be held in detention for longer than seven months without being tried. Only in very exceptional circumstances can this period be extended to up to 11 months.
Silvia had been detained without trial for 15 months. Judicial authorities, an examining judge and the Public Prosecution Service are responsible for ensuring such prolonged detentions do not occur.
Beaten for a confession
When I met her, Silvia was held in a cell with adult women convicts. Because of her age, she should not have been put in the same cell as adults. She also should not have been put in the same cell as women who had been convicted. She had not been convicted of anything, but the system treated her as though she had.
She said police officers threatened to beat her to make her confess. “They asked me if I knew I had killed my mother,” she said, her voice almost inaudible. “And when I denied it they asked my father if they could beat me to make me confess, but my father said no.”
She was accused of murdering her mother, although there were no obvious signs of a suspicious death and no sign of her involvement. And no autopsy was carried out to determine the cause of her mother’s death.
The accusation against her was based on information from a neighbour, who said that Silvia had argued with her mother a few days before her death.
The police are prohibited from using beatings or threats of beatings to obtain a confession, but they continue. Often people confess to a crime they have not committed to stop such beatings.
Silvia had a lawyer, but most poor detainees do not. The Institute for Legal Representation and Assistance was set up to provide free legal aid to those who cannot afford a lawyer, but most detainees have unqualified individuals or poorly qualified lawyers to handle their cases.
Held without trial
About 38% of people in prisons in Mozambique are held there despite not having been tried and found guilty. Many of them have been arrested without sufficient grounds for arrest and kept in pretrial detention for longer than permitted by Mozambique law.
Like Silvia, they are often beaten or threatened with beatings. Many are forced to admit guilt, do not have competent lawyers and end up spending months – sometimes years – forgotten in prison.
When we visited José Capitine Cossa (also known as Zeca Capetinho Cossa), he had been in the Machava Maximum Security Prison for 12 years without having been convicted of, or seemingly ever charged with, a crime. He was arrested for selling sculptures on the side of the road in Maputo. He had had no court hearing.
After written interventions from the Human Rights League and Amnesty International, Cossa was released in September. Silvia was freed about five months after our visit. Mozambique’s attorney general stated that she had been convicted of her mother’s murder and sentenced to two years, but because she had already spent more than half of her sentence in detention she was granted conditional release.
Others are not so fortunate. Hélder Xavier* was arrested and charged with theft at the age of 16. He had seen a commotion on a street in Maputo and, when he went to see what was going on, was accused of being an accomplice to a robbery. He said the police gave him no opportunity to defend himself or respond to the accusation. He had had no further information regarding his case and was not taken to the juvenile court. He has been in Maputo Civil Prison since August last year.
Mozambique’s Public Prosecution Service, judicial authorities and lawyers must effectively carry out their functions to prevent such violations of human rights. The police should not unlawfully arrest and detain individuals or ill-treat detainees. Those who do should be prosecuted.
Muluka-Anne Miti is Amnesty International’s Mozambique researcher
* Not their real names