(New York) - The Angolan government should annul the convictions of three prominent rights advocates and a former policeman after a politically motivated trial in the oil-rich Cabinda province, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should revoke the overbroad and vague provisions of the state security law brought against the four men, Human Rights Watch said.

On August 3, 2010, a Cabinda court sentenced human rights defenders Father Raúl Tati, a Catholic priest, and Francisco Luemba, a lawyer, each to five years in prison; Belchior Lanso Tati, a civic activist and university professor, to six years; and José Benjamim Fuca, a former policeman, to three years. The four men were arrested following a January 8 attack by gunmen on Togolese soccer players who were in Cabinda to participate in the African Cup of Nations.

"The Angolan government needs to stop silencing its critics in Cabinda by throwing them in prison," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Angola should drop these trumped-up charges and revoke the flawed security law provisions used to prosecute them once and for all."

A separatist guerrilla movement, Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), claimed responsibility for the January 8 attack. The government has not conducted any credible investigations into the attack, nor did the court find that the accused men had any direct involvement in it, Human Rights Watch said. However, the government has continued to try to link the four to the incident by, for instance, having the state-owned daily Jornal de Angola report that those convicted were "terrorists."

The main government investigator, the Cabinda deputy director of the criminal investigation police, was charged for making false declarations during the trial regarding the men's involvement in the attack. But he continues in office and may therefore have authority over the criminal investigation against him, Human Rights Watch said.

The trial was marked by a number of legal and procedural irregularities. Prosecutors contended in court that the men had engaged in "hostile propaganda," based on documents found in their possession. But no evidence was presented that these materials were linked to any illegal or violent activity, said Human Rights Watch, whose representatives spoke with observers of the trial and reviewed the case documents.

The testimony in the case indicated instead that the participation of the defendants in allegedly illegal meetings with representatives of the guerrilla group in October 2009 was strictly aimed at facilitating a peace dialogue with the government. The four have appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court.

The four men were prosecuted under article 26 of the 1978 law on crimes against the security of the state, which permits convictions for unspecified "Other acts against the security of the state." This overbroad and vague provision effectively allows for the punishment of any activity deemed to endanger the security of the state, even if such an act is "not provided for by law." As such, it violates fundamental principles of the rule of law and the right to a fair trial under international law, Human Rights Watch said.

The government for several years has used article 26 to justify arbitrary detentions of civic activists in Cabinda. Human Rights Watch and other domestic and international human rights organizations have repeatedly called for revocation of this clause on the grounds that it violates fundamental rights. The Cabinda defense lawyers for the four men have filed an appeal with Angola's Constitutional Court to repeal article 26.

Human Rights Watch also called on Angola, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, to issue an immediate invitation to the UN special envoys on freedom of expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers to visit and report on the situation in the country.

"The Angolan government tars its international image when it jails civil society actors for engaging in peaceful political activities," Peligal said.

The Angolan government has long used the police and domestic intelligence services in Cabinda to intimidate and silence political critics, Human Rights Watch said. Throughout the trial, which consisted of several sessions from June 23 to August 3, there was a massive presence of heavily armed Rapid Intervention Police, who blocked public access to the court, sending a message of intimidation.