Maputo — The Mozambican government has no intention of reinstating military tribunals or court martials in time of peace, Justice Minister Joaquim Verissimo assured the country's parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, on Thursday.
Verissimo was introducing a government bill amending a 1997 law on defence policy and the armed forces, one article of which deals with military justice and discipline.
Deputies from the main opposition party, the former rebel movement Renamo, on the Assembly's Defence and Public Order Commission, claimed that "the existence of military justice is synonymous with the creation of military tribunals to reintroduce the death penalty for soldiers".
In the short debate on the law, one Renamo deputy, Vasco Manuel, went further and claimed that the bill would legalise death squads, and allow the armed forces to be used for ballot box stuffing during elections.
The text of the bill simply states that "the specific requirements applicable to the armed forces in matters of justice and discipline are regulated in the Code on Military Justice and the Regulations on Military Discipline, which are approved by law and by a government decree respectively".
"Subordination to military discipline", it continues, "is based on compliance with the laws and regulations, and on obedience to the hierarchically superior levels".
A further paragraph in the same article grants soldiers the right to receive free legal assistance from the state to defend their rights and their good name.
There is not a word about military tribunals, much less the death penalty. Since capital punishment is outlawed by the Mozambican constitution, a constitutional amendment would be needed to reintroduce it.
Verissimo stressed that the concept of military justice is much broader than simply holding court martials. Legal and disciplinary matters concerning soldiers "happen all the time", he said.
As for military tribunals, these are not permitted under the Constitution. The Constitution lists the types of court that may exist in Mozambique, and these do not include military courts. Verissimo reminded the deputies that, under a law passed by the Assembly in 2009, in times of peace, military crimes are brought to trial in the ordinary civilian courts.
As for Renamo's claim that, under the government bill, troops can be used against the civilian population, Verissimo said the armed forces may only be used in internal security in cases when the police are unable to handle the situation.
The armed forces can be used internally when a State of Siege or a State of Emergency is declared. But never in Mozambican history, even at the height of the South African apartheid regime's aggression against Mozambique, has a State of Siege or State of Emergency been declared.
The main innovations in the bill are the creation of a "national maritime authority system" and a "national aeronautical authority", which will be established under separate laws to regulate military use of Mozambican waters and airspace. These should not affect civilian shipping or aviation.
The bill passed its first reading with 137 Frelimo deputies voting in favour and 47 Renamo deputies voting against.
The 13 deputies of the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) abstained, mainly in protest against their exclusion from the Defence and Public Order Commission.
The MDM's seat on the Commission is occupied by Geraldo Carvalho who has defected from the MDM to Renamo. The MDM has been trying for months to have Carvalho expelled from the Assembly, since the Assembly's standing orders do not allow a deputy elected on the ticket of one party to switch allegiance to another.
But the Assembly's governing board, its Standing Commission, has failed to take any measure against Carvalho, even though he campaigned openly for Renamo during last year's municipal elections, and is now a Renamo candidate for the 15 October parliamentary elections.