Maputo — The Mozambican NGO, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), and the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) have called on the Mozambican authorities to release immediately 18 polling station monitors who are still detained in Xai-Xai, capital of the southern province of Gaza, almost six weeks after the general elections of 15 October.
The monitors all come from a newly formed opposition party, Nova Democracia (ND - New Democracy). The basis for their arrests is that they were supposedly observing the count at polling stations in Chokwe district, on the day of the elections, without being duly accredited, or using forged credentials. The ND leadership insists that the accusation is baseless and that they were duly accredited.
A CDD/SAHRDN delegation visited the 18 in the Xai-Xai prison on Friday - the first time any civil society body had been able to speak to them since their arrest.
The 18 monitors had initially been held in cells in Guija district, but were secretly transferred to Xai-Xai without the knowledge of their lawyers or families. The Xai-Xai prison has the capacity to hold 70 inmates, but currently houses over 300.
In a statement on the visit, the delegation said it found that six of the 18 monitors are ill, and require medical attention. But so far they have not been seen by any health professional.
Nonetheless, the delegation found all 18 in good spirits, and demonstrating "exceptional resilience". In their discussions with the delegation, which lasted for more than an hour, the prisoners complained of overcrowding, poor prison diet and unsanitary conditions.
The release cited Adriano Nuvunga, the Executive Director of the CDD, as pointing out that, after over 40 days of incarceration, there are still no formal charges against any of the 18. Yet Mozambican electoral law states that anyone accused of an electoral offence must be charged and brought to court within three days of his or her arrest.
"The failure to comply with these legal requirements", said Nuvunga, "or the lack of any formal charges, means that these detentions are arbitrary and hence illicit".
Washington Katema, the regional manager of SAHRDN programmes, said "Election monitors are human rights defenders. They play a fundamental role in advancing the ideals of Africa, in accordance with the Constitutive Act of the African Union".
They were key to an Africa "which promotes and protects human and people's rights, consolidates democratic institutions and culture, and guarantees good governance and the rule of law, even during electoral periods".
Katema added that "the prolonged detention of these human rights defenders, without trial and without effective judicial supervision, violates their right to a fair trial".
The two organisations reminded the Mozambican authorities that "the involvement of citizens in elections is a right that should be protected and not criminalised".
They argued that the lengthy detention of the 18 monitors breaches international human rights treaties that Mozambique has ratified, including the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights, and the AU's African Charter on Human and People's Rights.
Not only should the 18 be set free at once, the release concludes, but the authorities should take measures to embark on appropriate electoral reforms, including mechanisms for dispute resolution.