Angola has come under the spotlight following a series of trials that analysts say are designed to silence opposition to President José dos Santos, in power for 36 years.
Journalists, activists and citizens recently found themselves hauled before the courts for charges ranging from alleged coup attempts to rebellion against authority.
A case that has drawn worldwide condemnation was the arrest on June 20 of 14 young activists and two academics, who had gathered to read the book From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (1993) by American political scientist and pacifist Gene Sharp.
The office of the attorney general informed the media, members of Parliament and the diplomatic community in Angola that the protesters were caught while planning specific steps to carry out a coup d’état against the Dos Santos government.
Angolan air force captain Osvaldo Caholo, who was not part of the reading meeting of the activists, was also arrested along with a member of the state security force, who had been Caholo’s classmate at the university. The group has become known as the 15+1.
The government alleges the plotters had set up what they called a government of national salvation, waiting in the wings to take over.
Irking the government seems to have been a light-hearted Facebook discussion in May on who people thought would be appropriate to lead a new government. Some of the 15+1 were part of the Facebook discussions. Among the people named as possible leaders of a new government is Angola’s current minister of defence.
A number of famous Angolan politicians, musicians, writers, journalists, poets and academics have reacted with indignation to the arrest of the 15+1. In a YouTube video entitled Liberdade Ja! (Freedom Now) that has gone viral, award-winning novelist José Eduardo Agualusa, musician Paulo Flores, journalists and activists have demanded that Dos Santos immediately release the 15+1.
On August 8, mothers and wives of the 15+1 held a protest demanding their release, after three of the mothers had met deputy attorney generals. They had demanded the arrested be released by 10am that day. The protest went ahead but was met with brute force by the police. The marchers, who were heading towards Luanda’s city centre, were beaten and had dogs set on them.
Recently, the mothers’ group announced to the authorities that on August 28 they were again going to demand in a public protest the immediate release of the arrested. August???28 is the president’s birthday, which is usually commemorated with great fanfare and public jubilation.
Authorities in Luanda say the protest is not authorised, although the Constitution says people need only to convey that a public demonstration is to be held; government approval is not needed.
It remains uncertain when the 15+1 will go on trial. More than 60 days after the arrests, there are concerns that the attorney general arrests first, investigates later.
In another case deemed politically motivated, employee of Chevron and human rights activist Jose Marcos Mavungo was this week brought to court. Among the allegations against him is that he rebelled against the state and was allegedly found in possession of detonators and pamphlets whose authors are yet to be established. He is also charged with calling for resistance against the authorities. Mavungo was arrested on March 14, the day he announced a protest against bad governance and human rights violations in the province of Cabinda.
He was arrested when leaving a church by heavily armed police who had no warrant for his arrest.
The support group for political prisoners of Angola has alleged that, since his arrest, Mavungo has been subjected to ill-treatment by prison authorities that has included him being blocked from getting medicine or seeking medical attention, being denied food and an opportunity to talk to his wife and family.
His lawyers say the state had no evidence or charge against Mavungo and held him unlawfully for more than 43 days before producing the said pamphlets. At the trial on Wednesday, two government witnesses gave contradictory evidence and the prosecutor could not establish any evidence against Mavungo, who was remanded in custody, though no further trial dates were set. The law says no one should be held for more than 45 days before being brought to court with a charge and evidence.
In a high-profile case early this year, investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais was given a sixmonth suspended sentence.
The journalist had accused seven Angolan army generals, among them Manuel Helder Vieira Dias, nicknamed “Kopelipa”, the chief of staff and head of the military house of the president, of corrupt business practices in mining activities that had led to the death of peasants, farmers and their families. Marques documented the allegations in his 2012 book Blood Diamonds: Torture and Corruption in Angola.
Marques’s investigations also named Dos Santos’s daughter Isabel dos Santos, vice-president Manuel Domingos Vicente and the president’s cousin, José Filomeno dos Santos, as being involved in corrupt businesses. Isabel has been named as Africa’s first woman billionaire.
Luanda is strictly against public demonstrations: it does not allow or tolerate any form of social protest against the government and has cracked down on political dissent and civil society.
Opposition to Dos Santos is strongest in Cabinda, which is demanding independence from Angola. Cabinda accounts for almost 60% of Angola’s oil production, the main driver of economic growth in the past decade.