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The government of Angola, which yesterday joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), should publicly account for how it spends the country’s massive oil wealth instead of harassing citizens who criticize corruption, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 9, the Angolan National Police arrested approximately 110 protestors on their way to the French embassy in Luanda to protest corruption by the Angolan government. According to news reports, the protestors were distributing pamphlets that accused the government of siphoning “away billions of dollars that belong to the Angolan people” and keeping that money in France. A lawyer for the protestors reported that they were held at various prisons in the capital and several were released over the next 24 hours, but that police detained for a week 27 protestors who indicated they were members of the opposition Party for Progress (PADEPA). Police also arrested the party secretary on November 10 and released him on November 13, his lawyer said. Some protestors told Human Rights Watch that they were mistreated by police while in custody.

“The Angolan government should tackle corruption and mismanagement, not arrest those who publicize the problems,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights program at Human Rights Watch. “Arresting critics shows the government isn’t serious about reforms to improve transparency and curb corruption.”

Twenty-seven of the protesters were convicted of “unauthorized public manifestation” and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and fined an unspecified amount. The party secretary was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and an unspecified fine. Lawyers for the protestors appealed the cases; all 28 were released after paying unusually high bail amounts and are awaiting a judgment on the appeal by the Supreme Court.

Human Rights Watch believes these arrests are an attempt to stifle efforts to hold the government accountable over its misuse of oil revenues. Human Rights Watch is concerned that this incident may signal growing intimidation and harassment of political opponents by the Angolan government in the run-up to long-postponed elections expected in 2007. The government has a poor record on freedom of expression and disclosure of government activities.

Angola, the second-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, has repeatedly been dogged by allegations of massive corruption and mismanagement. In 2004, Human Rights Watch documented how the government could not account for approximately US$4 billion between 1997 and 2002. That sum was almost equal to all of the social and humanitarian spending in the country during that time.

Most recently, Transparency International ranked Angola 142nd in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index survey of 163 countries. Similarly, the International Budget Project, the independent nongovernmental organization that measures government budget transparency, reported that Angola was one of the most opaque countries for budget transparency in its 2006 survey of 59 countries.

In recent years, the government has disclosed more information about its sources of revenue. It publicly announced billions of dollars in bonus payments that oil companies paid the government after winning new concessions. The government has also provided more timely information on oil revenue through the Finance Ministry’s website. However, it does not adequately disclose how it spends those funds, even as the revenue has grown because of the new oil bonus payments, substantial loans from China, and the high price of oil.

“The government took years to disclose what it earns from oil, but it still needs to explain how it spends the money,” Ganesan said. “Angola could be a model for development, but right now it favors secrecy over progress and cracks down on critics.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has not agreed to a formal program with the government, in part because of the lack of fiscal transparency. On November 15, the Executive Board of the IMF reiterated its concerns over Angola when it said that the board “urged the authorities to tackle deep-rooted governance and corruption issues in the extractive sectors and expressed serious concern that progress on these issues is stalled” in a statement following an annual review of the economy in consultation with the government.

On December 14, the OPEC announced that Angola would become its newest member effective on January 1, 2007. Angola would be the second country from sub-Saharan Africa and the first new member since Nigeria joined in 1971. Ecuador and Gabon joined OPEC in 1973 and 1975, but left the organization in 1992 and 1994, respectively. The 11 current members are: Algeria; Indonesia; Iran; Iraq; Kuwait; Libya; Nigeria; Qatar; Saudi Arabia; the United Arab Emirates; and Venezuela.

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