Maputo — The Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, on Thursday passed the first reading of a bill introduced by the main opposition party, Renamo, intended to tighten the law on the theft of state funds.
But deputies of the ruling Frelimo Party said the bill was so badly drafted that they had no option but to abstain.
Introducing the bill, Renamo deputy Jose Palaco said it would fill gaps pointed out by the Attorney-General, Augusto Paulino, when he addressed the Assembly in April 2011.
Paulino pointed out that the existing law, dating from 1979, does not provide measures against officials "who use fraudulent tricks to register state-owned houses in their own names".
He added that it was difficult to punish theft of funds by state officials who do not sign the cheques or have direct access to the money, leading to the unjust situation whereby officials who order theft receive lesser penalties than their subordinates.
"Many crimes related with budgetary implementation, or the illicit appropriation of state financial resources, are not practiced merely by those who directly handle the funds", Paulino points out. "The most that can happen to a high ranking state leader who orders his subordinates to pay his personal expenses out of the state budget, even if this is a large sum, is that he will be sentenced for abuse of his position to a maximum of two years imprisonment and told to repay the money, without even any interest".
So Renamo drew up a short bill that sought to impose severe penalties on any office holder in the state, in public or state companies, or in companies where the state holds shares, who illicitly appropriates money or goods. The penalties proposed range from imprisonment of one to 24 years, depending on how much money is stolen.
The same penalties would be imposed on any state official who authorised illegal payments, who contracted costs not permitted by law, or who used "secret funds".
Likewise anybody who fraudulently registers in his own name buildings that belong to the state, or who extorts money, goods or services from other citizens would be subject to the same punishment.
The bill also sought to make the illegal use of vehicles or other movable goods, whether publicly or privately owned, an offence punishable by up to two years imprisonment.
When the Assembly's Constitutional and Legal Affairs Commission studied the bill it found that its objectives were acceptable - but argued that it should not be included in a separate law, but in the Penal Code which is currently undergoing revision.
Since the bill dealt with "matter of a penal nature", the commission believed that it should be added to the subjects under consideration by the commission as it rewrites the Penal Code.
The Constitutional and Legal Affairs Commission is expected to bring a new Penal Code to the next sitting of the Assembly at the end of the year.
The Commission suggested that the Assembly plenary simply accept the spirit of the Renamo bill, but leave it up to the Commission to decide on how exactly it would be incorporated into the Penal Code. Initially it seemed that this position was consensual - there was no dissent inside the Commission, and the three Renamo members of the Commission all signed its written opinion.
But in the debate on the plenary floor, the Renamo position changed. Renamo deputies insisted that the bill be put to a vote as it stood. This forced Frelimo deputies to point out that the bill was manifestly badly written, and in places even confused public and private property.
Assembly Chairperson Veronica Macamo attempted to put to a vote the proposal that the matter be remitted to the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Commission for inclusion in the Penal Code. But Renamo protested, and eventually, after consulting with the leaders of the parliamentary groups, it was the Renamo bill that Macamo put to the vote.
The bill passed its first reading by 40 votes in favour to 161 abstentions. The deputies from Renamo and the Mozambique Democratic Movement in the hall voted for the bill, while every Frelimo deputy abstained.
Following normal procedure, the bill now goes into its committee stage, and the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Commission can be expected to amend it heavily, or perhaps make another attempt to persuade the plenary that the Penal Code is the most appropriate place for this subject.
One thing is certain - without Frelimo support the bill cannot possibly pass its second and final reading. This is because the Constitution states that the Assembly decisions are taken by the vote of more than half the deputies present.