On 20 June 2015, Angolan musician and activist Luaty Beirão, popularly known as “Ikonoklasta”, joined a group of youth activists gathered in the capital city, Luanda, to host a discussion forum.
The like-minded activists had gathered to discuss the persisting human rights violations and governance concerns in the country under the leadership of president José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled the country alone for almost four decades now.
Without warrants, police officers stormed the meeting and arrested all those attending. Police also raided the homes of some of the activists they suspected of participating in the meeting, seizing their personal IT hardware. In the following days, two more activists accused of being connected to the meeting were also arrested.
Soon after their arrest, Angola’s interior ministry released a statement accusing Luaty and the other activists of preparing to disrupt public order and public security.
They spent more than three months in detention without being officially informed of their charges or being brought before a judge. On September 16 2015, they were officially charged with “preparing a rebellion” and a “coup attempt” against the government. Two female activists were also charged, although they were not detained. The charges against the 17 activists are extremely harsh. Their simple acts of discussing politics were deemed as crimes against the security of the state. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of up to 3 years in jail or a corresponding fine. The group are yet to be tried by a court of law. Luaty and two other activists are facing additional charges.
It is very concerning that the 15 activists were detained for over 90 days, in contravention of Angolan law, without judicial oversight and without being formally informed of the charges brought against them. In September, to protest against their illegal detention, some of these activists went on hunger strike.
Luaty has remained on hunger strike since 20 September 2015. For over a month, he had only been drinking water mixed with salt and sugar provided by his family. His health has been deteriorating and he is finding it difficult to drink and walk. He was transferred to the hospital prison of São Paulo on 9 October 2015, but he only accepted an intravenous saline drip on 11 October. On 15 October 2015, he was transferred to a private hospital, known as Clinica Girassol in the country’s capital Luanda. On 20 October, he expressed his desire to be transferred back to hospital prison of São Paulo to stay alongside the other 14 detained activists.
This week, Luaty has embarked on the second month of his hunger strike. Luaty’s health is now believed to be in critical condition. His original detention was an affront to freedom of expression. This injustice is being compounded by keeping him in jail and taking away his freedom. And now he risks losing his life.
Luaty and the other activists committed no crime. They have been imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and association, falling foul of a government intent on crushing dissent. They are prisoners of conscience and they should be immediately and unconditionally released.
As Africa’s second biggest oil producer and one of Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) key emerging leaders, a lot is expected from Angola in terms of fulfilling its domestic and international human rights obligations.
In recent years, Angola has been a poster child of the “Africa rising” narrative with significant revenues coming from its natural resources especially oil and diamonds, large scale infrastructure and massive construction projects. Angolans are entitled to ask questions as they seek to shape the country’s public policy.
Everyone is watching Angola. The country’s growing influence in SADC is noticeable. Its continental leadership ambitions are self-evident and there for everyone to see, so should be its commitment to human rights and respect for the rule of law, both glaringly missing but evidently necessary ingredients for the country’s sustainable rise to the top.
Angolan authorities must stop ruling through fear and instead open up space for all people to enjoy their freedoms, starting with Luaty and his counterparts. Instead they must direct their efforts at addressing the triple burden of unemployment, poverty and inequality affecting most young people in the country.
Authorities must allow Angolans to freely exchange views about the state of the country and to critically examine the actions of the government. At the centre of this should be a new and bold commitment to building a human rights respecting state, an important ingredient for building rights and respecting society.
Deprose Muchena is Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa