The Mozambican authorities' failure to credibly investigate recent killings and assaults of prominent critics of the government has created an environment of fear among the country's activists, Human Rights Watch said today. The abduction and beating of a journalist and human rights lawyer, Ericino de Salema, in Maputo on March 27, 2018, was followed by reports from activists of intimidation and threats by alleged security force members.
Six activists told Human Rights Watch that they were living in fear after receiving threatening messages for criticizing the government. Two said they had been forced to move, use different cars, and change their routines after noticing vehicles without license plates following them in the capital or parked outside of their homes for hours.
"The Mozambican authorities should move quickly to gather evidence about Salema's beating and arrest those responsible," said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Prosecuting the people who committed this crime will send a strong message to everyone, including in the security forces, who wants to create an atmosphere of fear."
Salema is a resident political commentator on one of Mozambique's leading television shows, STV's Pontos da Vista, on which he often has taken positions critical of government policies. He told Human Rights Watch that he had received threatening phone calls before the abduction.
Salema said that just after 1 p.m. on March 27, two gunmen in an unmarked vehicle without a license plate approached him near his car outside the offices of the Mozambican Union of Journalists in Maputo. They forced him into their car and covered his head. They drove around the city for about two hours, then to the Maputo Ring Road just outside the city. He said he heard a male voice giving the men instructions by cellphone. The abductors told Salema that they had been sent to "teach him a lesson."
"They beat my legs, arms, and knees with iron bars," he said. "I screamed until I had no more strength left. That's when I went quiet... and they left me there." Salema's left arm and legs were badly fractured, and he was evacuated for treatment outside Mozambique.
Salema is the second commentator on the same TV program to be abducted and attacked. In May 2016, Jose Jaime Macuane, a political analyst, was abducted and shot four times in the legs by gunmen who identified themselves as police officers. He was abandoned in an isolated area near the Maputo Ring Road. Two years later, the case is unresolved despite police pledges to investigate it.
"When you are a victim of crime that was not investigated, when the people around you advise you not to speak out because you can be the next victim, then the fear is real," Macuane told Human Rights Watch. "When I leave my house, I know something can happen to me."
Macuane said that very little progress had been made in the investigation of his case and that investigators asked for his medical record only a few weeks ago.
Two other former commentators from Pontos de Vista told Human Rights Watch they decided to cut ties with the television show after receiving frequent threats from unidentified people who claimed to work for the state security and intelligence services.
One former television commentator who asked not to be named said that a relative who works for the State Security and Intelligence Services, SISE, warned him that his name was on a file of people who could be targeted for their frequent criticism of government policies.
The government's failure to seriously investigate and prosecute apparent politically motivated killings and other attacks is pushing the climate of fear in the country to alarming levels, Human Rights Watch said.
Since March 2015, the authorities have failed to properly investigate 10 high-profile killings across the country. The victims include a constitutional lawyer, Gilles Cistac in March 2015, who was shot by four unidentified men outside a café in Maputo. On October 8, 2016, Jeremias Pondeca¸ a Renamo opposition party member of a team preparing a meeting between President Filipe Nyusi and the Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama, was shot dead during his morning jog on Maputo's main beach, Costa do Sol. On October 4, 2017, the mayor of Nampula, a member of the opposition Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM), Mahamudo Amurane, was shot and killed near his house by unidentified men.
The Mozambican Criminal Investigation Police (PIC), the government body responsible for criminal investigations, publicly promised to investigate the cases but has not identified any suspects.
"The Mozambican government should urgently take appropriate measures to investigate these crimes targeting activists," Mavhinga said. "Failure to act would condemn activists to live in perpetual fear and insecurity."