(New York) - The Angolan government carried out an intimidation campaign in connection with an announced anti-government demonstration that was inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government warned in the weeks leading up to the protest, which was announced for March 7, 2011, that anyone who joined would be punished for inciting violence and attempting to return the country to civil war. Police arrested several demonstrators and journalists the night before the event. The announced demonstration did not take place.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern at anonymous death threats against opposition politicians and human rights lawyers, arbitrary arrests of journalists and activists, and misuse of the state media for partisan political purposes. The government and ruling party officials used baseless claims of possible violence, including an imminent outbreak of civil war, to deter people from participating in the demonstration, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 7, police in Luanda arrested four journalists from the private newspaper Novo Jornal as they were preparing to cover events around the demonstration, which had been called by an anonymous group using the internet in February. Ana Margoso, a journalist for Novo Jornal, told Voice of America that police agents put her in an isolated cell and interrogated her all night, repeatedly asking her the same questions about her supposed personal links to opposition politicians.

Police also arrested a group of 17 young rap musicians in the same place in Luanda's city center who were reading poems and distributing pamphlets saying they intended to participate in the protests later that day.

All were held in custody by the criminal investigation police and released the following morning without any further explanations. The Luanda police spokesman, Jorge Bengue, later said the rappers had been arrested to avoid potential clashes with an unidentified group of residents allegedly heading for the same location.

In Cabinda city, police arrested four alleged protesters, all former activists of the civic association of Cabinda, Mpalabanda that was banned in 2006. Human Rights Watch also received media reports of arbitrary arrests in Dundo, Lunda Norte province on March 5.

On February 28, a number of small opposition groups - the Popular Party (PP), the Coalition of Opposition Parties (POC) and the Party for Progress and National Alliance (PDP-ANA) - announced they would join the demonstration. They said they wanted to express their concern about social and economic exclusion of the majority of the Angolan population, corruption, intimidation, and lack of freedom of expression.

The governor of Luanda, José Maria Ferraz dos Santos, on March 1 unlawfully banned a planned peaceful vigil by the same opposition groups set for March 6, under the pretext that only religious groups were allowed to organize vigils and that the Coalition of Opposition Parties was not officially registered as a coalition. Angola's constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly and does not require official authorization for a public demonstration or similar activity.

The state media, which are the only media with national outreach and are controlled by the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), reiterated warnings in the period leading up to the protests  not to join them. They gave opposition parties no chance to explain their views and motives for their call for protests.

"Without the possibility of political debate in the national media, the only way left to transmit our message to the population is using phone text messages and distributing pamphlets in the street," an opposition politician told Human Rights Watch.

Journalists in Luanda and Benguela told Human Rights Watch they had received several anonymous phone text messages, which circulated widely, warning people not to join the anti-government protests and contending that the protests were aimed at dragging the country into anarchy and civil war.

The ruling party called for a pro-government "peace march" in Luanda and several provincial towns on March 5. Human Rights Watch received a number of credible reports that government officials forced teachers and public servants in Luanda and several provincial capitals to participate. Teachers were threatened with job loss or salary cuts and obliged to press their students to participate by threatening them with "problems" if they stayed home.

Luanda residents told Human Rights Watch that the ruling party used public buses and trains to transport  people from Luanda's periphery to the March 5 march in the city center.

Senior ruling party officials repeatedly reiterated the message in the state media that the march was a patriotic obligation for all citizens. The ruling party spokesman, Rui Falcão, in a news conference on March 4 used an incident involving an alleged illegal arms shipment, quickly disproven, to suggest that the main opposition party and former rebel group, Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), was planning a violent uprising. The statement appeared designed to discredit participation in the planned March 7 demonstration, even though UNITA had long before publicly declined to join the protest demonstration. UNITA had said that the protest lacked credibility because it was called by an anonymous group with an unknown agenda.

"Angola's ruling party should not scare people with renewed violence to deter them from freely expressing their views, " Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Such disrespect of basic political freedoms does not bode well for Angola's upcoming general elections in 2012."

On March 4, the leaders of the three opposition parties decided not to participate on March 7. They told Human Rights Watch they had received anonymous death threats by phone and text messages. Manuel Fernandes of the POC party coalition said that unknown people had paid visits to his family members, warning them he might be killed if he continued to "incite rebellion against the president." Sediangani Bimbi of PDP-ANA said he received anonymous phone calls and text messages threatening that "anything could happen" to him if he didn't stay home. Threats continued after the politicians called the demonstration off.

The lawyer and prominent human rights defender David Mendes, leader of the Popular Party and president of the human rights organization Mãos Livres ("Free Hands") told Human Rights Watch he received several anonymous death threats by phone and text messages and became particularly concerned last week, when unknown people torched a car belonging to his organization in Huambo and broke into his car, which was parked at his home. This week, unknown people torched the car of another prominent Mãos Livres lawyer, André Dambi, at his residence. Mãos Livres provides legal aid and has been defending victims of official abuse throughout the country.

"Politically motivated death threats against opposition politicians, lawyers, and human rights defenders are a deadly serious concern," Bekele said. "The Angolan government should explain publicly that such threats are crimes and take all necessary steps to protect those targeted."