Mozambique: Vilanculos Murder - Accomplice Sentenced to 22 Years

Maputo — The Maputo Higher Court of Appeal (TSR) on Monday sentenced Edith d'Compta Camara Cylindo to 22 years imprisonment for her role in the assassination, on 11 April 2016, of the prominent prosecutor, Marcelino Vilanculos.

The TSR thus overturned a decision of the Maputo Provincial Court which in January 2018 acquitted Cylindo for alleged lack of evidence. The prosecution appealed against the verdict, and this is one of the rare cases where the Appeals Court has found in favour of the prosecution.

Cylindo had confessed to the crime, but the judge in the original trial accepted her claim that the confession was coerced, and so pronounced her not guilty.

However, the prosecution argued, and the TSR accepted, that Cylindo's confession was based on the damning evidence of phone calls between her, and those who had ordered the crime. They had targeted Vilanculos because he was investigating the wave of kidnappings that struck Mozambican cities from late 2011 onwards.

The original trial found that a three man death squad was recruited to murder Vilanculos. It was led by Jose Ali Coutinho, who recruited the two others, Amad Antonio Mabunda, who fired the fatal shots, and Abdul Tembe, who drove the car. The three met each other when they were all serving terms in the Maputo top security prison.

All three were arrested - but by the time of the trial only Mabunda was still in custody. Tembe escaped from Maputo Central Prison during a thunderstorm on the night of 24 October 2016. The director of the prison, Castigo Machaieie, and eight prison guards were detained on suspicion of facilitating Tembe's escape. Tembe has not been seen since the escape.

On 24 April 2017 Coutinho was sprung from custody. Coutinho and a second prisoner, Alfredo Muchanga (not believed to be associated with the Vilankulos murder) were taken from their cells in the Maputo City Police Command, and driven towards a Maputo police station, where they were to be interrogated in connection with alleged attempts to sabotage the security system in their cells. Before they could reach their destination, the vehicle, belonging to the Criminal Investigation Police (PIC), was ambushed by a group of four armed men, all wearing hoods.

The assailants fired more than 20 shots, mostly at the tyres of the police vehicle, immobilizing it. The two policemen in the car, a Land Cruiser, fled for their lives, allowing the gangsters to rescue Coutinho and Muchanga. But it soon turned out that this was not an escape at all: three days later, the bodies of Coutinho and Muchanga were found in a shallow grave in Moamba district, about 60 kilometres north of Maputo. Coutinho had not been released - he had been silenced.

Cylindo was accused of providing the death squad with information on the movements of Vilanculos. The prosecution said she had been contacted by Coutinho to help the death squad identify the victim. So not only did she follow the prosecutor's car, but she also photographed Vilanculos, and gave the photos to Coutinho. According to the prosecution, after the murder Coutinho paid Cylindo 500,000 meticais (about 8,400 US dollars).

Notably absent from the January 2018 trial and from the appeal was whoever gave Coutinho his orders. The prosecutors believed that Coutinho was closely linked with the country's most notorious killer, Momad Assife Abdul Satar (better known as "Nini"), and that both were connected to the wave of kidnappings.

In January 2003, the Maputo City Court found that Satar was one of the three business figures who had ordered the murder, in November 2000, of the country's foremost investigative journalist, Carlos Cardoso. Satar was sentenced to 24 years and six months imprisonment, but was released on parole in 2014 after serving just half his sentence, on the ground that he had shown "good behaviour" while in the Maputo top security prison.

Police and prosecutors, however, were convinced that, far from being a model inmate, Satar had been active, from his prison cell, in planning other crimes, including the kidnappings of business people. Satar never had any problem in acquiring cell phones, even though such devices are not allowed inside prisons.

Satar was charged in a 2013 kidnap case - but the presiding judge scrubbed his name from the list of suspects. That same Maputo judge, Aderito Malhope, later in 2014, authorised Satar's request to travel abroad, supposedly for medical treatment, though it was not stated what condition he suffered from which required treatment outside of Mozambique.

The Attorney-General's Office (PGR) continued to investigate Satar's connections with the kidnappings and his name is on the charge sheet in two cases opened in early 2017. The PGR only went public with this information after Coutinho was sprung from police custody and then murdered.

The PGR issued a statement in April 2017 stating "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".

To this end, said the PGR, he formed "a criminal alliance" with Coutinho, and with Edith da Camara Cylindo.

In light of these findings, the PGR issued an international arrest warrant, and the Maputo City Court revoked Satar's parole status.

With the help of Interpol, Satar was tracked down to Thailand, where he was arrested in 2018 and deportd to Mozambique. Now he is back in the Maputo top security prison, serving the rest of his sentence for the murder of Carlos Cardoso.

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