Mozambicans trade TV soaps for their own 'O.J. trial'

Six men are on trial for killing a journalist, and witnesses have implicated men with governmental ties.

On a stretch of Milagre Mabote Avenue, with its cracked sidewalks and faded buildings, a doorman presses a hand-held radio against his ear. Two salesgirls at Vive Commerce General stop their chatter when the voices on the radio begin to crackle. And the Chacha family sits in the living room of their yellow, second-floor apartment, huddled around an aging television.

For the past month, Mozambique television's normally popular Brazilian soap operas have yielded to real-life intrigue: the murder trial of six men accused of killing the country's most prominent journalist, Carlos Cardoso. Several high-ranking government officials have been linked to the killing, and one witness accused the son of Mozambique's president of paying for the murder.

Broadcast live on state radio and television, the trial has taken on O.J. Simpson-like proportions here, with crowds gathering at cafes to watch proceedings, and some in rural areas selling tickets for the right to listen on their car's radio.

While sheer drama may explain some of the interest here, the people of Mozambique also see the trial as a test of their government. A decade after the end of a brutal civil war, the country's socialist ruling party is still learning how to lead a democratic and open society.

That this trial is taking place publicly and the government appears willing to investigate charges against influential people are considered signs of openness to greater accountability.

"This is the first time we've been able to watch something like this," says Mr. Chacha after a long day of viewing from his family's cracked leather sofa. The unemployed 29-year-old watches four to five hours a day. "We thought these people were untouchable. I never thought they would sit facing trial."

Mr. Cardoso, owner and editor of the now-defunct Metical daily newspaper, was gunned down outside his offices in November 2000. He was in the midst of investigating the theft of $14 million from the state bank on the eve of its privatization in 1996.

Among the six accused of carrying out the murder are members of the wealthy Satar family, businessmen of Pakistani origin who were involved in the scandal Cardoso was investigating. While acknowledging they provided the money that paid for the murder, the Satars claim they did not know what the money would be used for. They say the payments to the three men who have admitted to killing Cardoso were made on behalf of Nyimpine Chissano, the president's son, who has not been formally charged but has testified before the court. He denies any involvement in the killing.

The country's attorney general at the time, who was sacked as a result of Cardoso's investigation, is being investigated for his role in the subsequent coverup.

President Joaquim Chissano has said he will not interfere in the trial, despite the accusations against his son. Many observers say that one reason the government has allowed the trial to take place so publicly is to protect the president and his party against charges of interference.

"This is to show the country that there is transparency here, and that we are serious," says José Ibraimo Abudo, Mozambique's minister of justice. "People don't trust the government, but this trial and the way it is being held publicly will help to end that."

While observers say that the trial is now proceeding smoothly, there have been several hitches along the way.

One of the accused, Anibal Antonio dos Santos Jr., escaped from prison in September and is being tried in absentia. Threats have been made against several witnesses, and the house of the chief prosecutor was burgled. For security reasons, the trial is being held in a large white tent on the exercise grounds of Maputo's maximum-security prison.

"This trial is opening the doors to all the murky corners of Mozambique's economy - that essentially unregulated, untaxed economic sector in which these people were involved," says Paul Fauvet, editor of the Mozambique Press Agency and a biographer of Cardoso.

Cardoso's widow, Nina Berg, comes to the trial each day and sits in the front row just feet from men accused of killing her husband. Security agents in dark glasses keep a watchful eye while witnesses testify into a hand-held microphone.

For Ms. Berg, the vindication of her husband's life will come not only in the completion of this trial, but in following it up with others, including one against Mr. Chissano.

"People are fed up with seeing what is happening and with the justice system," she says. "You would never go to the police if you were attacked, because they wouldn't help. It can't just be about this trial. It has to be followed up, or people will say it was just a show."

Back on Milagre Mabote Avenue, doorman Alberto Rafael agrees. "It's not about Cardoso. It could be about any other person," he says, momentarily taking his ear away from the radio. "It's about bringing justice to Mozambique."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.