Maputo — Police prevented reporters from filming or photographing the opening, on Tuesday, of the trial of Mozambique's most notorious assassin, Momad Assife Abdul Satar ("Nini"), on charges of using a false passport.
The trial was held at the Maputo top security prison (known as the "B.O."), where Satar is currently incarcerated, serving the rest of his 24 year sentence for his part in ordering the murder of the country's foremost investigative journalist, Carlos Cardoso, in November 2000.
When journalists arrived, they found their path blocked by armed police. In attempts to disperse the reporters, at one point a shop was fired into the air. This did not have the desired effect, and the reporters continued to concentrate around the prison entrance.
Eventually, the authorities allowed the written media access to the trial, but no cameras were allowed in.
This was a clear violation of the constitutional principle that trials are public. Exceptions are allowed only in cases that involve "safeguarding personal intimacy" (such as protecting the identity of rape victims), or where "powerful security or public order reasons advise the exclusion or restriction of publicity". Clearly the latter does not apply to journalists reporting on a case of false identity.
The law on press coverage of trials does exclude cameras and microphones, but only from the phases of "production of proof" - i.e. the interrogation of the accused and the witnesses. There is no legal restriction on filming the opening statements by the judge or the prosecution. Yet all the photo-journalists were kept out of the prison, and decided to wait outside until the end of Tuesday's proceedings.
The defence lawyers assured the journalists that they had nothing to do with this decision, and had no problems with the presence of cameras.
Satar faces charges of forgery, using a false name and corruption. Beside him in the dock are Sahime Mohammad Aslam, his nephew and the name under which Satar was travelling, and National Migration Service (SENAMI) employee Cidalia dos Santos, who issued the false passport to Satar.
Dos Santos has been a SENAMI employee for ten years and is under investigation for helping many foreigners obtain Mozambican passports fraudulently. The discovery of these crimes came about after the repatriation of Satar, who was detained on 25 July 2018 in Thailand, where he had been living for three years.
Much to the anger of police and prosecutors, Satar was granted parole by a Maputo city judge, Aderito Malhope, in 2014, after serving just half his sentence for the Cardoso murder, even though he had not paid a penny of the compensation ordered for Cardoso's two children, which was an integral part of his sentence.
Prosecutors also contest the claim that Satar had behaved well during his years in prison. They believe that, from his jail cell, he was involved in other crimes, including the wave of kidnappings of business people that shook Mozambican cities as from mid-2011.
Nonetheless, not only was he granted parole, but he was even allowed to leave the country, supposedly for medical treatment in India. He never set foot in India, and it was widely believed that he had gone to Europe. Reports circulated that he was living in luxury in London.
According to the prosecution, Cidalia dos Santos was key to Satar's fake passport. She was an official in the SENAMI sector responsible for the production of biometric passports. She issued the passport for him on 23 December 2014. He took on his nephew's name, because of physical similarities between them.
On that same day, 23 December 2014, a deposit of 70,000 meticais (about 1,110 US dollars, but worth substantially more at 2014 exchange rates) appeared in dos Santos's bank account. She told prosecutors she did not know where the money came from.
Armed with his false passport, Satar left Mozambique on 10 January 2015, crossing into Swaziland and then South Africa, before heading for the Middle East. He then spent about a week in the United Arab Emirates, before resuming his travels - which took him to Singapore, Cambodia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France and Thailand.
During this period, the Mozambican Attorney-General's Office (PGR) continued to investigate Satar's supposed connections with the kidnappings and his name was on the charge sheet in two cases opened in early 2017. During these investigations, said a PGR statement of April 2017, "it was found that the accused, Momad Assife Abdul Satar, formed a criminal organization with the purpose of kidnapping Mozambican citizens, so that later large amounts of money in ransom could be demanded".
In light of these findings, the PGR issued an international arrest warrant, and asked the Maputo City Court to revoke Satar's parole status. The City Court agreed and cancelled Satar's parole in a dispatch dated 21 April 2017. From that moment, Satar became a fugitive.
With the assistance of Interpol, Satar was tracked down to Thailand, where he was arrested on 25 July 2018, and deported to Maputo.