(Johannesburg) - The Angolan government should immediately end the unlawful detention and torture of people suspected of rebel activities in the oil-rich enclave province of Cabinda, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
In the 27-page report, "‘They Put Me in the Hole': Military Detention, Torture, and Lack of Due Process in Cabinda," Human Rights Watch shows a disturbing pattern of human rights violations by the Angolan armed forces and state intelligence officials. Between September 2007 and March 2009, at least 38 people were arbitrarily arrested by the military in Cabinda and accused of state security crimes. Most were subjected to lengthy incommunicado detention, torture, and cruel or inhumane treatment in military custody and were denied due process rights.
"The Angolan armed forces are committing serious human rights violations in Cabinda," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Angola's security concerns do not justify torturing people or denying them their most basic rights."
Human Rights Watch's report is based on first-hand, in-person interviews in March 2009 with 20 detainees at the civilian prison at Yabi in Cabinda, as well as court records and other sources. Many of those detained were residents of villages in the interior of Cabinda who were arrested during military raids that followed armed attacks attributed to the Liberation Front of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), a separatist guerrilla movement. They were eventually charged with state security crimes for alleged involvement in armed attacks attributed to the separatists.
The detainees gave Human Rights Watch consistent accounts of being mistreated in military custody. One said: "They took me - tied up - to the military garrison in Caio and put me in a hole full of water. I stayed there for 19 days ... I insisted I was innocent." Another detainee said: "The military beat me, squeezed my testicles and my tongue with a pincer, telling me to ‘say the truth.' I cried in pain."
Court records show that confessions obtained under torture were used as evidence during judicial proceedings and that defense lawyers were given no prior access to this "evidence."
The government should drop all cases brought against citizens based on unlawful confessions, such as those obtained under torture, Human Rights Watch said. Torture is prohibited by international human rights law at all times, and international due-process standards prohibit confessions obtained under duress from being used as evidence.
Human Rights Watch called on the Angolan government to ensure that the armed forces promptly transfer individuals detained for security crimes to the competent civilian authorities, hold them according to international standards for pretrial detention, and provide a prompt and fair trial. The government should investigate all allegations of serious human rights violations by members of the military and intelligence services, and prosecute alleged perpetrators, Human Rights Watch said.
The Human Rights Watch report provides further details of the high-profile case of Fernando Lelo, a former Voice of America correspondent who was convicted of national security crimes in an unfair trial in September 2008. The report also draws attention to cases that have attracted much less public attention and risk being overlooked.
There are cautious signs of improvement: unlike Lelo and soldiers convicted along with him, all other detainees charged with state security crimes are to be tried before a civilian court. In May 2009, a judge of the Cabinda civilian court acquitted four such detainees for lack of evidence; the Cabinda prosecutor has filed an appeal, which is pending.
"A court acquittal for lack of evidence is a positive sign, but unless the detainees tortured receive compensation and the military officials responsible are punished, there is little to guarantee against future abuses," Gagnon said. "The Angolan government should promptly review the unfair conviction of Fernando Lelo and his co-accused, ensure full due-process rights to those accused of state security crimes, and provide effective remedies to the victims of torture."
A 2006 peace agreement signed by the government of Angola and a faction of the separatist guerrilla movement sought to end formally the armed conflict in Cabinda, which has endured since Angola's independence in 1975. The Angolan government claims that the war in Cabinda is over. However, sporadic attacks on government forces and expatriate workers have continued, and a FLEC group has threatened to increase activities ahead of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, which will also be held in Cabinda.