A Mozambique court has sentenced 37 people to prison for involvement in violent attacks in the volatile northern Cabo Delgado province, a gas-rich region near the Tanzania border, a court official said on Thursday, April 25.
Ten people were sentenced to a cumulative count of 40 years in prison for crimes including voluntary homicide and possession of prohibited weapons, Judge Geraldo Patricio said during his ruling on Wednesday.
Another 24 defendants were jailed for 16 years for crimes against the state and association to commit a crime.
Three others, all aged under 21, received 12 year sentences.
The trial was the first of five criminal proceedings relating to the attacks, involving some 200 defendants.
Out of those, the courts have acquitted 143 people while about 20 suspects fled before facing trial.
“It was a very complex process, consisting of more than two thousand pages,” Zacarias Nhapatima, a court spokesman, told AFP.
“The judge of the case has been able to thoroughly study case by case, to the point of giving a solution,” he said.
Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado province is expected to become the center of a natural gas industry after promising offshore discoveries near Palma. The vast gas deposits could transform the impoverished country’s economy, with experts predicting that Mozambique could even become the world’s third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.
But the country’s north has largely been excluded from the economic growth of the last 20 years, creating fertile ground for radical Islamist ideology.
A hardline Islamist group has been blamed for deadly attacks in the province over the past 18 months, stoking unrest just as the government pushes ahead with exploration efforts.
Since October 2017 remote communities have been terrorized – about 200 people have been killed and thousands forced from their homes.
The Islamist group was originally known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama – Arabic for “followers of the prophet” – but commonly referred to by locals and officials as “Al-Shabaab,” although it has no known link to the notorious Somali jihadist group of the same name.
Researchers have said the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama leadership has links to Islamist groups based in Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya and in the Great Lakes region, where some also received training.
But some analysts and journalists have questioned the official narrative blaming Islamists. Various other theories have been put forward, but access to the area is limited, making any theory difficult to substantiate.
President Filipe Nyusi has vowed to “neutralize” the threat and sent heavy reinforcements to the region where hundreds of people have been arrested.
Human Rights Watch has accused security forces of serious human rights violations, and several journalists have been arrested in the area.
With reporting from AFP