25 November 2000

Montepuez prisoners died for lack of Oxygen

The 75 prisoners who died in police cells in the northern Mozambican town of Montepuez on Tuesday night were asphyxiated, according to the medical team that carried out the autopsies. The head of the team, Eugenio Zacarias, told Radio Mozambique that the prisoners had suffocated: there was simply not enough oxygen in the cell to sustain so many lives.

Zacarias said the prisoners had been kept in a cell with the door and windows closed, and that in the cell bathroom there were just two small openings through which air could enter. He had no doubt that the gross overcrowding of the small cell was the true cause of death. Zacarias said the prisoners died "because of the size of the installations, and the number of people in the cell". The medical team carried out ten full autopsies and a superficial examination of a further 36 bodies. A dozen foreign experts, including four South African pathologists, joined the Mozambican doctors in the later stages of the autopsies.

Some of the bodies bore scratch marks, indicating that there had indeed been scuffles inside the crowded cell, as survivors have claimed. A reporter from the daily paper "Noticias" interviewed 13 survivors, who blamed the deaths on fights started by members of Naparama peasant militia, a group which is widely believed to possess magical powers. Julio Lopes, cited in Saturday's edition of the paper, said "they began to fight among themselves inside the cell, they fell down, and some died immediately afterwards". Another prisoner, Agostinho Adelino, believed there had been witchcraft and that black magic was the real cause of the deaths. "It's true that the cell was overcrowded", he said, "but the things that happened are difficult to understand. The group of Naparamas arrived in the cell and asked for water. We gave them a five litre container which they finished off in a matter of seconds. Immediately afterwards fighting broke out amongst them".

The death cell contained 94 prisoners, all arrested after the 9 November clashes in Montepuez between the police and demonstrators organised by the former rebel movement Renamo. The rioters apparently included former Renamo guerrillas and Naparama members. The death toll initially given was 83, but Zacarias corrected it downwards to 75.

The parliamentary groups of both Renamo and the ruling Frelimo Party have expressed deep concern at the Montepuez deaths. The two parliamentary groups met, separately, on Friday, and both demanded that the government explain as rapidly as possible the causes of the deaths. Lutero Simango, interim spokesman for the Renamo-Electoral Union coalition, declared "compatriots of ours have died in several prisons in the country because of torture and ill- treatment inflicted by the police on the orders of the government" He argued that the deaths were a deliberate tactic "to silence witnesses who might testify against the police during an investigation into the deaths that occurred during the demonstrations of 9 November". The spokesman for the Frelimo group, Edgar Cossa, praised the government for its speedy response to the tragedy, with the immediate dispatch of doctors to Montepuez. "We believe that those responsible for this slaughter will not go unpunished", he declared. (AIM)

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