(Johannesburg) – The Angolan authorities should immediately drop politically motivated charges against 18 people who were convicted after unfair trials for their participation in an anti-government demonstration in Luanda, Human Rights Watch said today.
A second trial against another group of demonstrators should be halted for failing to meet fair trial standards and those held on trumped up charges should be released, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into police use of unlawful force at political demonstrations and intimidation and harassment of defense witnesses.
“Unfair trials of demonstrators are not the answer to the legitimate reform demands of citizens,”said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should respect the right to peacefully demonstrate and impartially investigate violence against demonstrators.”
On September 3, 2011, police agents and groups of unidentified men apparently allied to the authorities violently dispersed an anti-government rally involving several hundred protesters in Luanda. The police said four police officers and three others had been injured and blamed demonstrators for the violence. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch many more demonstrators were injured.
There are credible accounts that plainclothes security agents infiltrated the demonstration and committed violence. Human Rights Watch previously documented the disproportionate use of force by the police against demonstrators and attacks on demonstrators and journalists by groups of unidentified men during the demonstration.
A police court in Luanda sentenced five organizers of the September 3 demonstration to three months in prison and fines and damages totaling US$1400 for the crimes of disobedience, resistance, and “corporal offenses.” The claimants for damages were four police officers who alleged being injured by demonstrators. The court also sentenced 13 other demonstrators to 45 days in prison for the same crimes, suspending the sentence for two years for two minors. Three of the accused protesters were acquitted for lack of evidence. The defendants have appealed to the Supreme Court. The attorney general refused a request to release the defendants pending the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Another trial will begin on September 14 against 27 alleged demonstrators who were arrested during rallies calling for the release of the September 3 protesters.
Police are holding these demonstrators in a high-security prison 60 kilometers from Luanda, and have denied them access to lawyers and family members. Two opposition parties, UNITA and Bloco Democrático, claimed that their representatives were denied access to party members among the detainees at the prison.
The trial against the September 3 demonstrators violated fundamental fair trial guarantees and due process of law, Human Rights Watch said.
The police have refused to give information to lawyers and family members about the September 3 detainees’ whereabouts, and refused them access to a lawyer. Lawyers and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a number of the demonstrators, who were tried in police court hearings had visible injuries and complained about degrading prison conditions, insufficient food and water.
Defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch they were allowed access to the indictment only on the first day of the hearings, on September 8, and only for a few minutes. Defense lawyers and persons attending the trial told Human Rights Watch that the four claimants, all police agents, did not present credible evidence that they had been injured by any of the demonstrators, nor that there had been any material damage.
Defense witnesses told Human Rights Watch that during the trial there was a climate of intimidation and harassment by unidentified individuals present at the court, and neither the police nor the court magistrates did anything to protect them. In one incident during the second day of the trial, two of the defense witnesses, Diana Pereira, a demonstrator, and Coque Mukuta, a journalist at the privately owned Rádio Despertar, told Human Rights Watch that two men threatened them and tried to forcibly abduct them. When they identified one of the assailants to the police commander present, no action was taken, and the assailants continued to threaten them in the presence of the police. In response to the threats, another defense witness told Human Rights Watch, “We are afraid to go home tonight.”
Diana Pereira described to Human Rights Watch the court session break in the afternoon on September 9:
Coque Mukuta and I left the court to buy lunch at a nearby shop. There, two individuals threatened me. They told us to “keep our mouth shut,” grabbed me and tried to drag me with them. We managed to escape, jumped the road back to the court and reported to the police commander at the court. We returned to the shop with the police. We pointed at one of the individuals who had threatened us, who was still there. The man continued threatening us, saying, “Beware, I can beat you up in front of the police.” The police agent witnessed this but didn’t do anything about it. The police commander told us to lodge a complaint at another police station, far from the court, alleging he was not responsible for this case.
“The authorities are obliged to protect court witnesses, an important component of a fair trial,” Bekele said. “The government should promptly conduct an impartial investigation into these threats and hold whoever is responsible to account.”