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‘Massacre’ of Suspected Gang Members Has Mozambicans Asking: What's the Role of Police?

Mozambican police are frequently criticized for abuse. Screenshot from YouTube video by TVM Moçambique.

An old debate over police violence returned to dominate the Mozambican internet after the police killed seven individuals suspected of belonging to a gang that had carried out attacks in the capital city, Maputo.

According to the police, on the night of 11 August, officers pursued a car carrying the alleged gang members. The chase culminated in an exchange of gunfire, in which the seven individuals were fatally injured. No police officer was hurt. The incident occurred in Matola municipality, on the outskirts of Maputo.

The account of the newspaper O País, one of the first to report the story, stated that the seven bodies were found with multiple bullet wounds and some of the individuals’ faces were unrecognizable. A graphic video recorded minutes after the event, shared on social media, corroborated this.

In a press conference on 15 August, attended by Global Voices, a police spokesperson said the officers reacted in legitimate defence and had no intention of killing:

A intenção nunca foi de a Polícia tirar a vida. A intenção era de neutralizar os mesmos e levar à barra do tribunal, mas a troca de tiros fez com que os indivíduos perdessem a vida no local. Foram os primeiros a disparar, e tínhamos que responder.

The intention of the police was never to kill. The intention was to neutralize them and bring them to court, but the exchange of shots led to the individuals losing their lives at the scene. They were the first to shoot, and we had to respond.

Mozambican police are frequently criticized for abuse, and the news provoked a divergence of opinions among the public. Some defended the police and others said that they had caused a massacre, pointing out that the country does not have capital punishment.

Businessman Nini Satar, imprisoned in 2003 for the murder of the Mozambican journalist Carlos Cardoso and now a fugitive for allegedly having commanded, while he was in prison, a gang which committed kidnappings in Maputo, described the incident as a massacre in a Facebook post:

Em Moçambique, repito, não existe pena de morte. Está plasmado na lei. Não entendo, no entanto, como é que alguém pode dar parabéns a Polícia por ter cometido aquela chacina. Aquele é um acto reprovável em todos os sentidos. A responsabilidade da Polícia é de garantir a legalidade. E esta simpatia pela atitude da Polícia revela fraquezas da sociedade moçambicana. Como sociedade, não estamos bem. Temos problemas graves. Uma das premissas duma sociedade é respeitar a dignidade humana.

In Mozambique, I repeat, there is no capital punishment. It is expressed in the law. I do not understand, though, how it is that somebody can congratulate the police for having committed this massacre. That is a reprehensible act in every sense. The police’s responsibility is to guarantee legality. And this sympathy for the police’s attitude reveals weaknesses in Mozambican society. As a society, we are not well. We have serious problems. One of the premises of a society is to respect human dignity.

The killing of these seven individuals happened in the same week that a group of eight to ten armed men attacked seven residences in Maputo and killed a man in front of his wife and children when he tried to stop an attempted rape of his wife.

Talking of the case, Paulo Boune posted online:

Quando estes mataram o jovem trabalhador, honesto e responsável por não ter os deixado violarem sexualmente sua esposa frente dele e dos filhos não houve alaridos. Hoje, foram abatidos sem dó nem piedade e assisto tristemente no nosso “quintal” uma campanha contra nossa força policial. Alguns compatriotas já trazem teorias de Direito, mas ontem não vi neste “quintal” nenhuma brochura se quer de Direito para nos assistir (…) Há falta de seriedade e honestidade neste “quintal”

When these men killed the hardworking, honest and responsible youth for not having let them sexually abuse his wife in front of him and the children, there was no uproar. Today, they were killed without pity or mercy and I am sadly watching a campaign against our police force in our “backyard”. Some compatriots are already bringing up theories of law, but yesterday in this “backyard” I did not see any pamphlet of law to help us […] There is a lack of seriousness and honesty in this “backyard”

Matias Guente, senior editor and journalist for the weekly Canal de Mocambique, disagreed with the above post, responding:

(…) Não é papel da polícia matar pessoas. Eu também fiquei altamente lixado ao saber que um.grupo de delinquentes violou uma mulher e assassinou o marido. Isso revoltou me é sinceramente e confesso que tomado por alguma raiva cheguei a pensar horrores. Mas os jovens que foram assassinados hoje, não foram apanhados em flagrante delito. Estavam a caminho de cometer um crime. Se é que isso é verdade. Porque a polícia não os neutralizou? Esse é o papel da polícia. E não matar pessoas. Eu até assumo que aqueles jovens são mesmo bandidos, mas e daí? O papel da polícia não é matar bandidos é criar condições para que os bandidos não actuem. O que aconteceu hoje na Matola é a polícia a assumir o papel de bandidos. É de uma incompetência monumental para não dizer é de uma delinquência sem prazo

[…] It is not the role of the police to kill people. I was also angry to know that a group of delinquents raped a woman and murdered her husband. This revolted me and sincerely I confess that in a rage I ended up thinking horrible things. But the youths that were killed today were not caught in the act. They were on the way to commit a crime. If this is the truth. Why did the police not neutralize them? That is the role of the police. And not to kill people. I even assume that those youths really are thugs, but so what? The role of the police is not to kill criminals, it is to create conditions such that the criminals do not act. What happened today in Matola is the police assuming the role of criminals. It is a monumental incompetence to not say it is a crime without limit.

Similarly, Isalcio Mahanjane, a political analyst and lawyer for the Guebuza family in the murder case of the daughter of Mozambique’s former President Armando Guebuza, commented:

Temos de repensar o nosso sentido de direito e atentar para amanhã não estarmos envergonhados diante da sociedade por tamanhas “declarações”… o Estado de Direito deve prevalecer sempre. Compreendo a raiva de muitos, mas não compreendo o desvairar…

We have to rethink our sense of morality and pay attention so that tomorrow we are not ashamed before society for such “declarations” … the rule of law must always prevail. I understand the anger of many, but I do not understand the craziness…

For his part, political analyst and university professor Julião Cumbane replied to those criticizing the police, stating:

Não é trabalho da polícia fazer justiça. O trabalho da polícia é defender a lei e os cidadãos e seus bens. O sucesso do trabalho da polícia mede-se pelo mal que não acontecem, pelo crime que não ocorre. Ou seja, prevenir a ocorrência do crime é igualmente trabalho da polícia. O que se exige é que a polícia faça o seu trabalho dentro da lei. Quando a polícia persegue e abate bandidos sanguinários, está a fazer o seu trabalho dentro da lei.

It is not the work of the police to take the law into their own hands. The job of the police is to defend the law and the citizens and their property. The success of the police’s work is measured by the evil which does not happen. In other words, preventing the occurrence of crime is also the police’s job. What is required is that the police do their work within the law. When the police chase and kill bloodthirsty criminals, they are doing their work within the law.

Sociologist and university professor Elísio Macamo drew attention to those defending capital punishment for the bandits:

Uma das coisas mais arrepiantes em toda esta discussão sobre a acção policial que vitimou sete indivíduos é a voz daqueles que saem em defesa da pena capital num país onde já se verteu tanto sangue. Arrepia. Só espero que no dia em que pelo peso da maioria a pena capital regressar se incluam disposições para que se seja consequente: os familiares das vítimas têm que ser os executores, a forma tem que respeitar a maneira como o bandido ceifou a vida dos outros e, se tiver também morto família, que a sua família também seja executada. Vingança sem proporcionalidade não anima.

One of the most frightening things in this discussion about the police action that targeted seven individuals is the voice of those who come out in defence of capital punishment in a country where so much blood has already been spilled. Frightening. I only hope that on the day when, due to the weight of the majority, capital punishment returns, provisions are included which ensure: the relatives of the victims have to be the executioners, the method has to follow the way which the criminal took the lives of the others and, if family have also died, that their family are also executed. Revenge without proportionality is not uplifting

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