(Johannesburg) – Angola, the incoming chair of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), should allow regional civil society debate and media coverage of the SADC summit meeting that began in Luanda on August 16, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged SADC leaders to address growing concerns about the Angolan government’s restrictions on freedom of expression, including official obstruction of regional civil society participation in debates around the summit.

Since August 11, Angolan authorities have obstructed civil society activities planned around the SADC Heads of State summit. Angolan immigration officials at Luanda’s international airport denied entry to 17 civil society activists and leaders from the Southern Africa region and two Mozambican journalists, and have seized publications belonging to Zimbabwean civil society activists. The Angolan authorities have not given any credible explanation for these actions. The absence of these participants has severely hampered meetings of the 7th Civil Society Forum of SADC, a meeting usually held in tandem with SADC summit meetings, in Luanda, Human Rights Watch said.

“Angola should stop blocking regional civil society dialogue on crucial issues of development, government, and human rights in Southern Africa,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This obstructive behavior highlights the restrictive and repressive environment in Angola, which itself should be on the SADC’s agenda.”

Joana Maria Macie, a journalist for the Mozambican newspaper Jornal Noticias, and Lourenço Cossa, from the Mozambican newspaper Independente, told Human Rights Watch that they were traveling with visas issued by the Angolan consulate in Maputo with an official invitation from the state-owned Angolan journalist education center, Cefojor. Cossa told Human Rights Watch that immigration officials threatened to “use force” if they refused to return to South Africa immediately, obliging them to leave their personal baggage behind. They said that the officials invalidated their visas with a red pen and withdrew their passports, which were only handed back upon arrival in Johannesburg.

“They treated us as if we were criminals,” Macie said.

The regional civil society organizations whose representatives were denied entry have condemned the action as “incomprehensible” and “a blatant attempt to deny leaders of civil society an opportunity to interact with and add voice to SADC structures.” The leaders of the Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC), the Fellowship of Christian Councils of Southern Africa (FOCCISA), and the Southern Africa Development Community – Council of Non-Governmental Organizations (SADC-CNGO) said that they had been given official guarantees that the authorities would issue a visa to their delegations when they arrived.

Austin Muneco, SATUCC executive director, told Human Rights Watch that his organization has never experienced such official obstruction in the region. Human Rights Watch received information that the Angolan authorities had ordered the cancellation of the Civil Society Forum meeting site reservations, alleging unspecific “security reasons.”

In another incident, Angolan immigration officials on August 15 detained a group of Zimbabwean civil society activists at Luanda’s international airport for five hours and seized 300 translated copies of a report on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Dewa Mavhinga from the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition told Human Rights Watch that the only explanation officials gave them for seizing the reports was that they needed to “investigate” the materials.

The Angolan authorities should explain why they seized the human rights reports and immediately return them so that Zimbabwean groups can discuss their concerns with others in Angola, Human Rights Watch said.

In a letter addressed to the SADC Executive Secretary Tomaz Salomão last week, Human Rights Watch called on SADC leaders to address a number of pressing human rights concerns in the region at their meeting. These include the lack of freedom of expression and assembly; the repression of recent anti-government demonstrations in Malawi, Swaziland, and Angola; and continuing political violence in Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch also called on SADC leaders to end a moratorium on the work of the SADC Tribunal.

“Keeping civil society from sharing their concerns with SADC leaders and keeping journalists from reporting on what the leaders discuss is no way to show leadership in the region,” Bekele said. “Angola needs to invite the journalists and civil society leaders to come back, return the reports, and welcome their interest and participation.”