(2015-07-21) Prominent Mozambican academic Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco has said he has every intention of returning to Mozambique to face accusations that he libelled former President Armando Guebuza, if this case does indeed go ahead.
Despite serious doubts as to the legality of the case, prosecutors have fixed 3 August as the trial date. Through his lawyer, Castel-Branco has requested a postponement to 31 August.
The trial arises from a post Castel-Branco put on his Facebook page in November 2013 which was strongly critical of Guebuza, and called on him to resign. The post was re-published in the newssheets ‘Mediafax’ and ‘Canal de Moçambique’, and the editors of these papers, Fernando Mbanze and Fernando Veloso, have been charged alongside Castel-Branco, but under a different law.
Castel-Branco has been charged under the law on crimes against state security, while the two editors are accused of “abuse of press freedom”.
Castel-Branco is currently in the British city of Manchester, but in an open letter to friends and supporters, he declared that, even if the trial is held on 3 August, he will return to face his accusers.
“I was asked if I would go to Mozambique for the trial. Of course I am going”, he wrote. “The issues at stake are much bigger than me, I refuse to be seen as being in political exile from my country. I have not committed any crime or undertaken any action that I am ashamed of”
He warned that, if the public prosecutors want to press ahead with a trial “I will use it, to the best of my ability, as a platform to fight for freedom of expression, of press, of political debate and thinking, and for an open debate on the social and economic issues that I raised on Facebook”.
“Of course, it would be safer and more comfortable if no trial took place and the case were dismissed”, he added. “However, as it is going ahead, we should take advantage of it. Whatever the outcome, whether we are found guilty or not, if the debate is in the open we win and Mozambique wins”.
In normal defamation cases, the citizen who feels offended must take action. But defaming the President is regarded as a security issue, and it so it is the state that is taking action against Castel-Branco, Mbanze and Veloso. Guebuza has said nothing about the matter, and does not have to appear in court.
Article 22 of the 1991 law on crimes against state security is wide-ranging, in that it makes defaming, not only the President, but also the Prime Minister, members of the government and senior figures in the judiciary punishable with a prison term of between one and two year. If the defamation is against lesser figures, such as parliamentary deputies or presidents and general secretaries of political parties, the sentence is between three months and two years imprisonment.
But the zealous prosecutors who are pursuing Castel-Branco and the two editors seem unaware that last year the Mozambican parliament issued an amnesty for security offences. The amnesty law was a prelude to the agreement on cessation of military hostilities signed by Guebuza and by Afonso Dhlakama, leader of the former rebel movement Renamo.
Clearly the intention was to provide guarantees that the Renamo gunmen involved in the mini-insurrection in Sofala province in 2013-14 would not be hauled before the courts. But the wording of the law is that “all” security offences committed between March 2012 and August 2014 are amnestied.
Furthermore the Maputo prosecutors have ignored the new Penal Code approved by parliament last year, and which took effect on 1 July. It lists legislation which the new code repeals – and this list includes Article 22 of the law on crimes against state security.
The Code contains a new article on defaming the President and other high-ranking officials, which is similar, but not identical to the 1991 version. It is hard to see how prosecutors can begin a case under an article which has now been repealed, and continue it using an article that has only now come into effect.
In his letter, Castel-Branco urged his supporters not to campaign merely for his acquittal and that of the two journalists. “The struggle should be about the issues at stake around which we fight every day”, he wrote. “Hence, the focus should be on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, academic freedom, freedom of political debate, and of the right to exercise citizenship. The issue is also the accountability of holders of high public office for their actions, and their exposure to criticism when citizens think they have not fulfilled their responsibilities as elected officials. Further, any type of campaign should not forget to mention the intense political pressure that has been put on the judicial system from the beginning of this case”.
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