Maputo — A judge from the Maputo Provincial Court, Elisa Samuel, on Wednesday urged the Legal Aid Institute (IPAJ) to improve its services, in order to fight against overcrowding in the prisons.
Speaking during a visit by the new IPAJ national director, Justino Tonela, to the court, Samuel said there are people locked up in the country’s prisons who should never have been arrested in the first place. But they end up in jail for lack of timely legal aid.
Such people can stay for weeks or months in jails or police cells, and when they reach court the judge finds there is no evidence that justified their detention. Such abuses could be avoided, if IPAJ had staff stationed at the main prisons checking on the status of detainees.
“It makes no sense that, in a jail like the Maputo Maximum Security Prison, there is only one IPAJ lawyer”, she said. If IPAJ had enough trained staff visiting the prisons “we could drastically reduce the number of people in preventive detention, and the number of arbitrary detentions, which contribute to prison overcrowding”.
Judge Samuel also warned that, although IPAJ exists to provide free legal aid to people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, in fact some IPAJ members illegally demand money from their clients.
The victims sometimes accept these demands because they do not know what IPAJ is. Samuel said there should be greater publicity about IPAJ and its role, including in local Mozambican languages.
When Tonela visited Machava Central Prison, the largest jail in the country, the prison director, Castigo Machaieie, told him it currently holds 1,997 inmates – although it was only built to house 800.
1,146 of these prisoners are serving sentences passed by courts, but the other 851 are awaiting trial.
Machaieie said there are serious health problems in the prison. 36 of the prisoners are mentally ill, 19 are physically disabled, 31 suffer from tuberculosis, and 416 are HIV positive. There is thus an HIV prevalence rate among the prisoners of 21 per cent.
Mentally ill prisoners do not always receive the care they require. Machaieie said the prison has alerted the courts not to send people with mental health problems to jail, but this appeal has fallen on deaf ears. “This is not an appropriate place for people suffering from mental illnesses”, he said. “We can’t provide them with adequate assistance and they only create disorder”. Prisoners in the Machava jail backed up what Samuel had said earlier in the day about illegal charges by IPAJ staff. A message from the prisoners delivered to Tonela said that IPAJ lawyers “ask for money from clients supposedly to pay for bail, but after the money has been paid, they disappear”.
Tonela recognised that this is a reality, and said that solving the problem depends on the collaboration of everyone, particularly the prisoners, in denouncing illicit behaviour by IPAJ members.
“Combatting illicit charges is one of our priorities”, he said, Disciplinary measures had been taken last year against five IPAJ staff involved in such cases.
The prisoners also complained that most of the IPAJ lawyers are interns, and after the end of their internships they abandon their clients before their cases are finished. Some IPAJ lawyers do not appear in court, allegedly for lack of transport. Other problems mentioned were that many inmates awaiting trial remain in jail even though the legally established period of preventive detention has expired. Likewise prisoners who qualify for parole are sometimes not released, even though they have served half their sentences and have a record of good behaviour in prison. However, comparing the current situation with reports from previous years, Tonela said that there was a clear improvement in these situations, with greater respect for the limits to preventive detention and the right to parole.