Mass Deaths in Mozambique Prison

Dozens of Mozambican inmates — many of them opposition supporters — have been found dead in a small prison. Police said the inmates had suffocated, but an opposition leader on Thursday accused the ruling party of poisoning them.

Mozambican Prime Minister Pascoal Mocumbi said he did not know exactly how many inmates had died in the prison in Montepuez, but television reports put the death toll at more than 75 while state radio reported 83 dead.

Mocumbi said government investigators would be joined by a team of international experts to probe the deaths, which occurred overnight Tuesday. He said there was apparently no violence.

Doctors began autopsies on the dead on Thursday afternoon, but their initial findings were not made public.

The deaths have fueled already strained political tensions in this impoverished southeast Africa country because many of the prisoners have ties to the opposition RENAMO movement.

Opposition leader Alfonso Dlakama accused the ruling party, called FRELIMO, of orchestrating the deaths.

“FRELIMO ordered the prisoners to be poisoned,” he said. Ruling party General Secretary Manuel Tome denied the allegations, saying Dlakama “talks without thinking.”

Bloody Civil War

RENAMO and FRELIMO fought a 17-year civil war that ended in 1992, and tensions continue.

On Nov. 9, Montepuez, 1,000 miles north of the capital, Maputo, was the scene of violent clashes between police and supporters of RENAMO, which is now part of the opposition coalition in parliament.

Seven policemen and 18 civilians died in the protest over the outcome of last year’s elections, which RENAMO says were rigged. During the protests, RENAMO supporters overran the town prison and released its 93 inmates.

Most of those subsequently held in the prison were arrested for their participation in the protests.

Montepuez, the second-largest town in the northernmost Cabo Delgado province, is a FRELIMO stronghold.

Some Montepuez residents told television reporters that more than 100 inmates were crammed into a single cell, and that suffocation was the likely cause of death. Police also blamed suffocation.

Surviving inmates, however, said they feared witchcraft was responsible for the deaths, saying the prisoners were killed by magicians who were protected by black magic.

International Investigative Team

Mocumbi said the government had contacted South Africa, the European Union and the United Nations to set up an autonomous, independent team to establish the cause of the deaths.

“The government’s request has received a positive response,” Mocumbi said. “Even if only one person died in prison, it is necessary to find out why.”

Two months ago the independent Mozambican Human Rights League complained that prisons in the north of the country were overcrowded, that minors were being jailed and that prisoners were only fed once a day.

RENAMO spokesman Railkhan Samsser ruled out a resumption of hostilities over the deaths.

“What FRELIMO wants is to provoke a war, but they won’t succeed, because we don’t want to take up our weapons again — we are for peace and we want democracy,” he said.