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(New York, August 13, 2008) - Intimidation of opposition parties and the media ahead of parliamentary elections in Angola, as well as interference in the electoral commission, threaten prospects for a free and fair vote in September, Human Rights Watch said today.

"The conditions for free and fair elections start long before election day," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But less than a month before elections, it's clear Angolans aren't able to campaign free from intimidation or pressure. And unless things change now, Angolans won't be able to cast their votes freely."

Angolans will vote for a new National Assembly on September 5, 2008, in the first elections held since 1992, when the country held simultaneous parliamentary and presidential polls. Civil war between the government and the former rebel movement UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) ended in 2002, but elections have been repeatedly delayed. The ruling Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) has been in power since 1975. Presidential elections are due in 2009.

Between March and June 2008, Human Rights Watch conducted research missions to Luanda and the provinces of Huambo, Bie, Cabinda and Benguela and found that the Angolan government is failing to fully ensure the right to free elections, and other rights critical to a fair poll, including the freedoms of expression and of assembly. These rights are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights ratified by Angola.

Human Rights Watch said the government is failing to fully meet basic duties set out in the Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), of which Angola is a member. Major areas of concern include the government's obligations to safeguard freedom of assembly and expression and access to the media by all stakeholders, and to establish an impartial national electoral body. The government has also failed to provide adequate security to political parties participating in elections and to ensure political tolerance and full participation of citizens.

"Angolans need to see improvements now if September's poll is to have a chance of meeting the basic requirements of a free election," Gagnon said.

Political intimidation and violence

In spite of President Eduardo dos Santos's public statements that the elections would take place in an environment free of violence, Human Rights Watch documented numerous incidents of political violence involving ruling party supporters through the voter registration period between November 2006 and May 2008. Political violence has occurred mainly in rural areas that were most affected by the civil war. Patterns of violence include sporadic assaults by local MPLA supporters, sometimes involving traditional authorities and local MPLA leaders, against local UNITA party members and their property and party symbols.

Victims and local civil society organizations told Human Rights Watch that law enforcement agencies have failed to take action against MPLA supporters for such violent acts. The lack of accountability has eroded Angolans' trust in the police - despite efforts of some provincial commanders to improve professional performance - and reinforces the perception of local ruling party supporters to have the police on their side.

For example, an eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that on March 2, a group of local MPLA activists beat members of a municipal UNITA delegation with stones and sticks when they arrived at Kafindua village (Chindumbo commune, Balombo municipality, Benguela) to raise a party flag:

"The police arrived and took four aggressors and three injured victims with them for interrogation, but afterwards released all of them. The aggressors came back to the village claiming victory and saying: ‘The police are ours.'"

Police officials told Human Rights Watch that they were unable to identify those responsible for the attack because it was a riot with many people involved.

In Huambo, Bie and Benguela, traditional leaders have increasingly come under pressure from the MPLA to prevent UNITA developing party activities in villages, according to credible reports given to Human Rights Watch. For example, Human Rights Watch found that on May 30, a group of 30 MPLA supporters beat the traditional leader Pedro Pomba in the village of Bongue Kandala (Kapupa commune, Cubal municipality, Benguela), together with five UNITA members, on the grounds that he allowed a UNITA flag to fly in the village two days before.

A member of the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission, which has been documenting political violence for several years, told Human Rights Watch in March:

"Traditional authorities have to do now what the MPLA says. Not all do this willingly, but he who resists ‘loses his bread'."

Human Rights Watch also received credible reports that local MPLA supporters are intimidating civil society groups monitoring cases of political violence. Another member of the Justice and Peace Commission said:

"If we say the truth, we are accused of being on the side of UNITA."

Human Rights Watch said the authorities' failure to investigate and prosecute ruling party supporters sends the wrong message, because the government should ensure all such allegations are investigated and perpetrators prosecuted regardless of political affiliation.

Government repression in the Province of Cabinda

Human Rights Watch found that despite a peace agreement in 2006 in Cabinda between the Angolan government and a faction of the separatist guerilla group, the Liberation Front of the Enclave of Cabinda (Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda, FLEC), a low-intensity, but still violent, separatist conflict and heightened military presence continues in the province. Government intimidation of dissident voices, military detention and other restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly significantly undermine the prospects for free and fair elections there.

Since late 2007, the military have continued to detain civilians for alleged "crimes against the security of the state" for extended periods without bringing them before an independent judicial body to review their detention. For example, the former Voice of America correspondent Fernando Lelo has been detained since November 15, 2007. His trial before the Military Court took place from May-June 2008, and he is awaiting a verdict. His lawyers say no evidence was produced at trial to sustain the accusations against him and six members of the Angolan Armed Forces of being involved in acts of insurgency.

In 1992, many voters in Cabinda abstained during the elections. In January 2008, thousands of residents of Cabinda signed a manifesto calling for dialogue on a political solution for self-determination, in an effort to launch a public debate before the elections. No such discussion had occurred, and there is little space for expressing such opinions.

Human Rights Watch found that authorities are targeting opposition parties proposing autonomy for Cabinda. In August 2007, Mateus Massinga, the provincial secretary of the opposition Frente para a Democracia (Front for Democracy), was sentenced to five months in prison, suspended for two years, for "insubordination and incitement of violence" after attempting to distribute a news release supporting autonomy.

Human Rights Watch also found evidence that police and state security services regularly intimidate and harass journalists and individuals and groups from civil society who have publicly questioned the credibility of the peace agreement.

"The government should allow voters and opposition parties in Cabinda to express their opinions freely if they are to have confidence in the electoral process," Gagnon said.

Government suppression of the media

Human Rights Watch found clear indications that the media environment in Angola, already restricted, has deteriorated since 2007. In May 2008, the state television broadcaster suspended and took disciplinary action against the presenter Ernesto Bartolomeu for supposed breach of professional confidences. Bartolomeu's "offense" was to admit publicly the degree of MPLA interference in the network's editorial policy.

Courts have accelerated legal proceedings in pending criminal libel prosecutions against private media journalists. In June 2008, a court sentenced the director of the private weekly Semánario Angolense, Felisberto Graça Campos, to a six-month prison sentence and ordered him to pay US$90,000 in damages following his conviction in three separate libel cases filed by government officials, which had been pending for years. Campos is awaiting a decision on his appeal. In late 2007, he had been convicted in one of these cases and detained for 35 days until the Supreme Court recognized procedural irregularities, annulled the trial and ordered his release. In June 2008, the editor of the private weekly Folha 8, William Tonet, also was to face trial in a libel case filed in 2004 by Ana Paula dos Santos, the president's wife, but the trial was postponed.

In July, the Ministry for Post and Telecommunications ordered the 180-day suspension of the privately owned Radio Despertar, alleging that its radio signal had extended beyond the capital Luanda - a ruling that the station is challenging but which may not be resolved before the September 5 election. Previously, a senior MPLA official had publicly accused the radio of being "a voice of UNITA." In June, the church-owned Radio Ecclésia was ordered to ensure that its signal remained restricted to Luanda, as the press law does not allow private radio to broadcast nationally.

"It is essential that all journalists are allowed to operate freely," Gagnon said. "All politically motivated charges and other threats against journalists or media outlets should be withdrawn to allow them to do their job without official hindrance."

Elections oversight body

Human Rights Watch found that the elections oversight body, the National Electoral Commission (CNE), chaired by the deputy Supreme Court president, is not independent. Of 11 members, six are appointed by political parties according to their representation in parliament - three from the ruling MPLA and three from opposition parties - while the other members are appointed by the president, the Supreme Court and several government ministries. Given the dominance of the ruling MPLA in the government and civil service, the majority of the CNE members are effectively appointed by the ruling party.

The Electoral Law prohibits changes to the legal framework once elections have been officially scheduled. However, the CNE did not, as would have been expected, disagree with the MPLA's attempt in June to push through a controversial amendment to the Electoral Law extending the September 5 polling to two days, despite the elections having been scheduled. Therefore it was not the CNE, but public pressure from the civil society organization Associação Justiça Paz e Democracia (Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy), arguing that the amendment undermined the rule of law, and from opposition parties, that forced the MPLA to back down.

Human Rights Watch said the CNE's task is to ensure fairness, freedom and transparency of the electoral process, and that the commission should take positions that strengthen public trust in its role.

Human Rights Watch learned that the electoral commission has depended for logistical support on the government's Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Electoral Process (CIPE), which should come under its supervision. Offices of the two commissions have shared staff at the local level, which has undermined transparency concerning electoral oversight. Representing several government ministries, the CIPE is dominated by the ruling MPLA and chaired by the Minister of Territorial Administration, Virgílio Fontes Pereira, who is also a senior MPLA candidate in the election. The CIPE carried out Angola's voter registration from November 2006 to May 2008 and was critical in determining the location of polling centers and stations until the end of July 2008.

Human Rights Watch also found that the government has restricted independent access to the central voters' register and has ignored civil society recommendations to conduct an external audit of the register. An Angolan civil society organizer told Human Rights Watch in July 2008: "The central voter register seems to be property of the CIPE and the government."

Angolan civil society organizations told Human Rights Watch they fear the CNE's selection criteria for polling station officials, domestic observers and voter education campaigners may also be tainted by ruling party interference. Voter education in some areas began only once the electoral campaign started, due to government organizational delays.

"Involving civil society in observing the elections for the first time is a major new step for Angola and it's vital to enhance trust in the process," said Gagnon. "The electoral commission should respect recommendations and complaints from domestic observers. It should also encourage civil society groups to observe the polls and get involved in voter education."

The government of Angola repeatedly delayed the establishment of a constitutional court to deal fairly and speedily with complaints, as required by the SADC Guidelines. The task of legal oversight of the process was left far too long with the Supreme Court, which had a record of procedural delays that have disadvantaged the opposition parties. For example, the Supreme Court took three years to respond to constitutional complaints lodged by UNITA in 2005 regarding several electoral laws. In addition, the court failed to respond to repeated requests from opposition parties to clarify criteria on how to document their application to stand in the elections. This has contributed to delays in approving which political parties are eligible to stand and in distributing state funds for campaigning. A constitutional court was finally established on June 25, 2008. It has so far developed a positive professional record in dealing with electoral concerns.

International election observers

Many international observers for next month's elections will only deploy in Angola in the coming weeks, too late to monitor pre-election conditions on the ground. Only the European Commission will deploy 44 long-term monitors. They joined a core team already in Angola last week, followed by 40 short-term observers over the voting period. Deployment of these observers followed lengthy negotiations with the Angolan government and delays in receiving visas.

Accreditations for further international observer missions from the African Union, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Community of the Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP) and other international organizations were formalized only recently or are still being processed. The deployment of a SADC observer mission remains uncertain to date.

"Election observers should remain vigilant about procedural flaws, but should also monitor freedom of expression and intimidation of opposition activists," said Gagnon. "The observers should issue urgent statements about any problems they find so that they can be corrected before the voting begins."

Human Rights Watch called on the Angolan government to:  

  • Ensure the Electoral Code of Conduct is enforced, all allegations of violence and intimidation are investigated and accused persons are tried quickly and fairly;
  • Ensure equal access to public media for the political parties;
  • Ensure public and private media are free to report and broadcast; an
  • Allow all electoral observers to move freely and access all stages of the process.

Human Rights Watch called on international observers to:  

  • Urge the Angolan government to ensure observers have access to all election sites and stages of the process and are free to report on intimidation and violence;
  • Monitor and report on the political and human rights environment before and after the vote by extensively consulting local civil society and opposition parties; and
  • Remain in Angola for a reasonable period beyond the elections to monitor and publicly report on possible election-related human rights violations.

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