Maputo — A court in the central Mozambican city of Beira on Friday found the former editor of the electronic newsheet “O Autarca”, Falume Chabane, guilty of libelling the private Beira International Primary School (BIPS) and its lawyer, Antonio Ucocho, and sentenced him to a prison term of 16 months, suspended for three years.
Chabane was also ordered to pay compensation of 75,000 meticais to the school and the same amount to Ucocho – a total equivalent to about 5,350 US dollars. For a Mozambican journalist, this is a huge sum, although it is considerably less than the 600,000 meticais that Ucocho had originally demanded.
Chabane’s offence was to write a daily column in the paper in solidarity with Aisling Binda, a ten year old disabled child who was excluded from the school because of her disability.
The specifics of the charges against Chabane are not entirely clear, since the judge ordered that the case be held behind closed doors.
The issue goes back to early 2011, when the school, which is run by a group of Americans, moved Aisling to a class on the first floor. Since there was no ramp, Aisling, who depends on a wheelchair, was unable to attend her new class. “O Autarca” suggested that Aisling’s class should have remained on the ground floor.
“O Autarca” waged a campaign of solidarity with Aisling. Every day Chabane’s column on the case noted how many days Aisling had been denied her right to education. Chabane claims that all he had done was “open a space for solidarity with the child”.
The school’s behaviour towards Aisling was criticised by the Mozambican Human Rights League (LDH), by child advocacy groups, by much of the Mozambican press and by the Sofala Provincial Government. The Sofala Provincial Directorate of Education intervened and issued an opinion in favour of Aisling, saying that the school should readmit her, but the Americans instead appealed to the Administrative Tribunal, which suspended the Education Directorate’s ruling.
Mozambican policy is that, wherever possible, disabled children should study alongside other children of the same age, and that schools should be built taking into account the needs of the disabled. Thus a government decree of December 2008 states that any new schools must include ramps to allow wheelchair-bound children to reach their classes.
Two years later, building work took place at the Beira International Primary School, and no ramp or lift was included that would allow disabled children to reach the first floor.
On leaving the court on Friday, Ucocho told the Beira daily paper “Diario de Mocambique” that “justice has been done”. He claimed that the court verdict “has tried to clear the name of the BIPS and my name, which had been heavily besmirched”.
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