Lobby group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has implicated the Mozambique security forces in serious abuses while fighting an armed Islamist group in the northern Cabo Delgado Province.
According to HRW, the security forces had since August 2018, arbitrarily detained, ill-treated and summarily executed dozens of people they suspected of belonging to an armed Islamist group.
“The Mozambican authorities should take immediate action to end abuses by their security forces and punish those responsible,” HRW quoted its Southern Africa director, Mr Dewa Mavhinga, as saying.
“Abuses by insurgents never justify violating people’s rights, and the security forces should be protecting the people in Cabo Delgado, not abusing them.”
Cabo Delgado Province is about 1,663km north of Maputo, boasts of minerals such as gold, grenadines, aquamarines, tourmalines, blue topaz and green tourmalines and attracts many foreigners.
The province borders Tanzania and has a population of 1,893,156 spread over its 77,867-km² 16 districts.
The US-based rights group reported interviewing 12 victims and witnesses of abuse in person or by phone, along with security personnel and journalists between November 10 and 27.
Many of the reported abuses followed attacks on villages by an armed Islamist group known locally as both Al-Sunna wa Jama’a and Al-Shabaab, with no publicly known link to the Somali armed group Al-Shabaab, the lobby group said.
“The insurgent attacks in Cabo Delgado Province that began in October 2017 resulted in a two-day lockdown of the area and a large-scale military response,” HRW added.
The rights group also pointed out that the insurgents have since carried out more than 60 attacks in six districts, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.
The, insurgents, HRW went on, have been responsible for summary killings, looting and arson.
HRW explained that the security forces arriving in villages several hours after an attack, often arrested young men and others who refused to cooperate with them.
In the most recent reported incident, on November 23, police stationed in the village of Chicuaia Velha, Nangane District arrested several villagers, mostly men who had not fled following the attack.
The night before, insurgents armed with machetes and knives had raided the village, set fire to homes, and killed at least 12 people, including women and children.
A police spokesman in Cabo Delgado, Mr Inacio Dina, denied that suspects were being questioned at military barracks.
“Any person found to be engaging in suspicious activities in the regions attacked by armed groups is handed over to the police,” HRW quoted Mr Dina as saying.
On September 30, a court in Pemba began the trial of 189 people, including Mozambicans, Tanzanians, Congolese, Somalis and Burundians, suspected of belonging to the armed Islamist group. Forty-two defendants were women.
They were accused of homicide, use of prohibited weapons, crimes against state security, and public disorder.
A Cabo Delgado Province state prosecutor, who asked not to be named, said that many of the defendants had accused soldiers of detaining them for several weeks before handing them over to police.
He said the detainees accused the police of using torture to force them to confess, and in some cases killed unarmed suspected insurgents in the bush.