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When governments jail people for reading

Human Rights
Angola activists

Detained activists at the court, including Luaty Beirão (middle, back). by By Coque Mukuta/Voice of America (Voice of America) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is not every day that you hear of a grotesque situation where people are arrested, accused of planning a coup and put on trial for reading books and publicly discussing them. But it is just this sort of Kafkaesque scenario that faces 15 political and human rights activists in Angola. They were arrested on 20 June 2015 in a bookstore in the capital, Luanda, for organizing a public discussion of two books that focus on peaceful means of challenging authoritarian regimes, one of them Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy. The activists were involved in civil campaigns on a range of social justice issues for which they tried holding the government and Angola’s ruling elites accountable.

The government in turn accuses the group of preparing a coup as well as an assassination attempt on President Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been in power for more than 36 years. If convicted, they face prison sentences of up to 12 years. The activists were kept in isolated detention without trial for more than three months, in different prisons scattered around the country, and there are plentiful allegations of torture and abuse. Two more activists since then were included in the accusations and the trial that started on 16 November. Meanwhile, peaceful solidarity vigils in Angola were deemed a ‘security threat to the public’ and dispersed by the police. To protest their treatment by the state, several of the group, including well-known rapper Luaty Beirão, known by the stage name of Ikonoklasta, went on hunger strike. Beirão maintained his strike for 36 days, one day for each year of President Dos Santos’ reign, seriously endangering his health in the process. The group has used the court hearings to put the ruling regime and its crimes and corruption under the spotlight.

Indeed, the ruling regime under President Dos Santos has increasingly found itself on trial in front of an international audience for its authoritarian and corrupt rule of the country, where a small elite reaps the benefits of the country’s economy while around 70 per cent of the population survive on $2 a day and human rights and civil liberties are routinely ignored and trampled on. Amnesty International called the trial against the 17 activists ‘a travesty of justice’, while the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, urged the government to drop all charges and release the 17 immediately. The case has attracted the attention of people around the world, the international media, NGOs such as Amnesty International, and many governments. Solidarity protests have been held in Brazil, Portugal and Britain, and an international campaign is clamouring for the release of the activists under the slogan Liberdade Já (Freedom Now).

The motivations of the activists on trial derive from the shockingly intense poverty and social inequality that grips the majority of Angola’s population, in a country that possesses the natural wealth to go far toward providing a dignified life for all its citizens. Angola was wrecked by three decades of civil war (1975-2002), one of the Cold War’s worst proxy conflicts, in which the US and South Africa on one side and the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other armed and supported opposing factions. Over 500,000 people were killed and the country suffers from high levels of landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Nevertheless, since the end of the civil war, Angola has had one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, due to its plentiful natural resources of petrol, diamonds and other precious minerals. It is, in fact, the continent’s second-biggest oil exporter. Yet while the international media have often focused on this booming economic growth, the fact that the generated wealth flows almost exclusively to a very small group of people is rarely mentioned. Nor do they report that amidst all these riches, which have made Luanda the most expensive capital in the world in terms of cost of living, Angola also has the world’s highest child mortality rate and one of the highest childbirth mortality ratios. China, Angola’s main trading partner, has benefited most from Angola’s ‘rise’, inadvertently posing as the putative role model for Angola’s human rights record. With friends like these, the Angolan people (except for the few oligarchs occupying the Manhattan-priced seafront Luanda apartments, enjoying views and feasts denied to most) do not need much by way of enemies.

In fact, the ruling regime under Dos Santos turned the country’s natural resources and extractive industries into a formidable source of rentier income by which to maintain its grip on power, as well as tie and subordinate all significant sections of state, economy and society to it. This appalling picture of corruption and social inequality, as well as the regime’s authoritarian governance, has increasingly sparked civil opposition campaigns in recent years that were repressed by means of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture of those courageous enough to raise their voices against the regime.

The arrest and trial of the activists and the trumped-up charges supposedly justifying them have exposed this picture to a worldwide audience, who are vocally demanding their immediate release. In that sense, it may just be that the government has gravely erred. The trial could in fact become a very damaging boomerang for them that will further animate civil opposition in Angola, especially as the slump in global oil prices since 2014 moved the regime to slash the state’s budgets and services even further. A new hunger strike by four of the group, including Luaty Beirão, was commenced on 10 December to protest against the severe manipulation of the trial to suit the regime’s needs. These 17 people deserve to be supported by all who value the struggle for social justice, human rights and democracy. Their courage and sacrifice in taking on a tyrannical and corrupt regime makes them, and the many like them, heroes whose selfless example deserve to be supported by us all. They must be released immediately. 

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