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Mozambique: Thousands unlawfully held in substandard prisons - new report

• Filthy, overcrowded prisons cells common
• Many people arrested and detained without having ever committed a crime
• Child detainees held in same cell as convicted adults

Thousands of people are being held in Mozambique’s prisons despite not having been found guilty of a crime, Amnesty International said in a report released today.  The report, Locking up my rights: Arbitrary arrest, detention and treatment of detainees in Mozambique  (PDF), exposes the fact that many inmates are arrested on spurious grounds and held for years without access to a lawyer.

The report describes how people from poor backgrounds are at particular risk of being locked up for months, sometimes years, in squalid, overcrowded cells without having committed a crime. 

The report – which is a collaboration between Amnesty International and the Mozambique Human Rights League – also shows how, in the majority of cases, these prisoners are not informed of their rights or are unable to understand them; cannot afford an experienced lawyer and are therefore almost invariably represented by unqualified people or poorly qualified lawyers; and are rarely granted freedom while awaiting trial.

During their research mission, Amnesty delegates met Jose Capitine Cossa – a man who had been held in a maximum security prison for 12 years without being convicted of a crime or having any kind of court hearing. He also didn’t appear to have ever been charged.  Mr Cossa has since been released following an appeal by Amnesty and the Mozambique Human Rights League. The Attorney General admitted that his detention had been irregular.

Amnesty International’s researcher on Mozambique Muluka-Anne Miti said:

“Mozambique’s haphazard approach to justice has resulted in hundreds of detainees simply becoming ‘lost’ in the system and languishing in prison with no rights and no recourse to justice. In some cases prisoners’ records have been lost entirely or contain serious discrepancies.” 

In general Mozambique’sprisons are overcrowded with poor sanitation and medical care. There are few opportunities for learning and training; and none at all for those who have not yet been tried.

In Nampula Provincial Prison, Amnesty found 196 people crammed into a cell of about 14 metres by 6 metres. The detainees inside were sitting with their shoulders touching and their legs bent at the knees as this was the only way they could all fit in the room.

In another cell in the same prison, Amnesty found 16-year-olds who did not have legal representation. In other prisons, Children's rights who had not been convicted of a crime were held in the same filthy, overcrowded cells with convicted adults.

Under Mozambique’s national laws all detainees are supposed to appear in front of a competent judge within 48 hours who should verify whether or not their arrest is lawful. In addition every detainee should have access to a lawyer free of charge. In the overwhelming number of cases though, this simply does not happen.

Muluka-Anne Miti added:

“We met detainees, some of them Children's rights, who had been arrested without any obvious sign of a crime having been committed, let alone sufficient evidence they had committed such and infringement.”

Ana Silvia (not her real name) was 15 when she was arrested for the murder of her mother even though there were no obvious signs of a suspicious death, no signs of Ana Silvia’s involvement and no autopsy carried out. Ana Silvia told Amnesty that after the police accused her of killing her mother they asked her father if they could beat her to make her tell the truth. Her father refused but Ana Silvia was sent to prison anyway.

Amnesty International encountered several Children's rights who both claimed and appeared to be under 16 years old. When questioned about this, prison authorities said that the burden of proof was on the detainees to prove their age. But only a tiny minority of people in Mozambique have birth certificates - those from very poor families are unlikely to have any kind of documentation.

Muluka-Anne Miti added:

“Access to justice in Mozambique is systematically denied to those without money. The prisons are full of poor young men still awaiting trial who haven’t been told their rights or offered legal counsel.

“The Mozambique justice system simply doesn’t work for poor people who can spend years languishing in prison without the authorities knowing, or caring, that they are there.

“The aim of a criminal justice system is to ensure that justice is done which includes ensuring that those who have not committed a crime are not unlawfully detained. Mozambique’s authorities must take this responsibility more seriously.”

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