(New York) - The Angolan government should urgently amend a new state security law that restricts freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The government also should immediately release human rights defenders convicted under the previous law in the oil-rich Cabinda enclave, Human Rights Watch said.
On November 4, 2010, the Angolan parliament, which is dominated by the ruling Popular Movement for the Independence of Angola (MPLA) party, hurriedly passed a revised law on crimes against the security of the state. The law requires the signature of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos before it enters into force. While the new law would replace a 1978 law that gives the government broad powers to restrict the rights to free speech and assembly, it still falls short of Angola's international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
"It is good news that Angola is replacing its notorious 1978 state security law," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But the new law falls short of international standards on free expression and peaceful assembly, and the president should return it to parliament for revision."
A New Tool of Abuse to Replace the Old
Article 26 of the 1978 state security law permitted convictions for unspecified "other acts against the security of the state," which effectively allowed for the punishment as a criminal act of any activity deemed to endanger the security of the state, even if such an act was "not provided for by law."
However, the new state security law also contains provisions that would restrict the right to freedom of expression and could be used to justify arbitrary detentions. For example, under article 25 of the new law, "insulting" the Republic of Angola or the president of Angola in "public meetings or by disseminating words, images, writings or sound" would be considered a crime against the security of the state, punishable by up to three years in prison. Thus, any criticism of the president that the authorities interpreted as insulting could be considered a criminal offense. This overbroad definition is a clear violation of the right to free expression and should be removed, Human Rights Watch said.
Article 26 of the new law states that "turmoil, disorder or riots" that "disturb the functioning of organs of sovereignty" would be a crime against the security of the state, punishable by up to two years in prison. The lack of definition of the activities that are named in this clause, could restrict the right to peaceful assembly protected under international law, Human Rights Watch said.
The Imprisoned Human Rights Defenders in Cabinda
Five men - among them two prominent human rights defenders, the Catholic priest Raul Tati and the lawyer Francisco Luemba - were sentenced to prison terms in June and August under article 26 of the 1978 state security law. They had been arrested following a January 8 attack by gunmen on Togolese football players who were in the enclave of Cabinda to participate in the Africa Cup of Nations. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Angolan government to quash what appear to be politically motivated convictions against these human rights and civic activists and to amend the flawed legal provisions under which they were prosecuted.
The revised state security crime law was one of the first to be passed in parliament after Angola's new constitution was enacted in February. The ruling party used its massive majority to pass the bill speedily, despite calls from opposition parties to amend it. Observers say the law was passed quickly because the government expected the Constitutional Court to revoke article 26 of the 1978 law, which would have invalidated the convictions of the five men.
The Constitutional Court Fails to Meet Legal Deadline
The Constitutional Court should have issued the ruling on Article 26, on a motion by the Angolan Bar Association to declare it unconstitutional, by November 1, before parliament approved the new law. The bar association filed the motion on September 16, following the conviction of four men in Cabinda on August 3. According to Angolan law, the court has a formal time limit of 45 days to respond to the motion. However, the court still has not ruled nor publicly explained the reasons for this delay.
Should the Constitutional Court rule that article 26 is unconstitutional, all prisoners convicted solely under that article would have to be released. It is unclear whether they would be released once the revised law is promulgated and article 26, under which they were convicted, is revoked.
"The Constitutional Court should rule promptly and impartially on the Bar Association's motion, and should it find article 26 to be unconstitutional, order those convicted under it be immediately released," Peligal said.
Human Rights Watch also reiterated its call on Angola, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, to take steps to improve the international reputation of its legal system by inviting 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.