Freedom of expression and association suffered another blow in Angola recently with the conviction of 17 young activists. These activists were sentenced to jail terms of between two and eight years after being convicted of various offences against state security in connection with their participation at a gathering in which their dissatisfaction with the political governance in the country was discussed. Their trial is emblematic of deep structural problems in Angola and demonstrates the extreme level of control over dissent that is exercised by President José Eduardo dos Santos.
In June 2015, 15 (and then two more) activists were arrested after they attended a meeting to discuss a book by Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation described as a “blueprint for non-violent resistance to repressive regimes”, and a draft manuscript by Angolan author Domingos da Cruz about how to effectively dismantle a dictatorship.
Domingos da Cruz was one of those arrested and later accused of being the leader of the group. President Dos Santos has been in power since 1979, and has presided over an increasingly autocratic and unequal society. Although fundamental human rights are protected in the country’s constitution little respect is given to them, and rights such as freedom of expression and association appear to be little more than a mirage. It was in this context that the activists met, to discuss ways in which they could effectively oppose Dos Santos’s rule and lay the groundwork for peaceful political change.
The activists were detained for three months before being officially charged with preparing a rebellion and plotting against the president, both of which are state security crimes. But just before the trial ended in March 2016, the charges related to an attempted coup were dropped and new charges of “criminal association” — which carries a heavier penalty — were introduced. These charges all emanated solely out of the activists’ participation at the June meeting, and, as many commentators noted, implied that any form of opposition to Dos Santos is deemed criminal in Angola. The activists have appealed their conviction.
The trial has also displayed the disregard for legal principle and due process in Angola’s criminal justice system. Observers were hindered in accessing the hearings, but it was clear throughout the trial that the prosecution had no evidence to justify the charges against the activists. Flimsy testimonies from state witnesses and reliance on a lengthy excerpt from Da Cruz’s manuscript appeared to be the state’s sole arguments in their attempt to account for the serious charges of threatening state security. The legal framework for protection of state security in Angola seem to have been abused in order to suppress legitimate dissent against the president and his government.
A democracy is built around the potential for political change, and this requires that citizens be enabled and permitted to lobby for that political change — whether that is for a change in government policies, or a change in the government itself. Democracies are always rough around the edges, with contestation and debate forming the lifeblood of democratic society. Peaceful discussions about political change should occur in all democracies, and, so long as they remain non-violent, a democratic regime has no authority to interfere in those political processes.
The distressing aspect of the conviction and sentences handed down this week is that they came as no surprise to most of those who have been following the trial. There is a distinct lack of faith in the justice system, and a recognition that those brave enough to speak out against the government face harsh reprisals. While Dos Santos continues to portray himself as a democratic leader and seeks greater cooperation with Africa and the rest of the world, this most recent example of utter distain for human rights and legal principle is the surest indication yet that Angola can no longer be regarded as a democracy.
The 17 activists, now facing years in jail, can no longer advocate for true political change but their experience has done much to demonstrate to the world the true nature of Angola’s political system. However, with the appeal having been lodged, the Angolan justice system has an opportunity to overturn the convictions, and so demonstrate that it does, in fact, respect international obligations and the rights contained in its own constitution.
Caroline James is a freedom of expression lawyer at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.