(Johannesburg) – The Angolan government should immediately end its use of unnecessary force against peaceful anti-government protesters, human rights activists, journalists, and opposition politicians, Human Rights Watch said today. Ensuring that people can exercise their basic rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, and prosecuting those who violate those rights, is crucial for creating a peaceful environment for parliamentary elections slated for later in 2012, Human Rights Watch said. On April 4, Angola will celebrate 10 years of peace since the end of the decades-long civil war.
Since January 2012, Angolan authorities have banned and cracked down on five anti-government rallies and arrested at least 46 protesters, 11 of whom courts sentenced to prison terms of up to 90 days. This appears to be an attempt by the government to curb an incipient protest movement promoted by youth groups and others since March 2011, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that state media appear to be promoting anonymous groups that incite violence against anti-government protesters.
“The increasing violence against protesters, observers and opposition politicians signals a deteriorating rights environment ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Angolan government should take urgent steps to end this crackdown on peaceful protest and activism.”
Uniformed police, in apparent coordination with armed police in civilian clothes and other security agents, violently attacked anti-government protesters in the capital, Luanda, on January 27, February 3 and March 10. In Benguela, on March 10, police arbitrarily arrested a demonstration leader, a human rights activist, and a bystander, and on March 17 police prevented a further protest from taking place. In Cabinda, on February 4, police violently attacked striking health workers.
Uniformed and plainclothes police and people believed to be allied to the government have acted with increasing violence and total impunity during peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said. The police have not intervened to protect peaceful demonstrators and opposition politicians who were being violently attacked by armed individuals, seemingly acting in coordination with and under the protection of the police.
Interior Minister Sebastião Martins recently denied any police involvement in the violence. The evening after the March 10 crackdown, state television aired threats by anonymous groups that claimed they were defending the peace against anti-government protesters.
Investigations announced by the authorities into the violence have not resulted in prosecutions of attackers identified by demonstrators and eyewitnesses. And new politically motivated assaults, threats and harassment against protesters and observers have been reported.
On March 10, youth groups called for demonstrations in Luanda’s Cazenga neighborhood and in the city of Benguela, to protest the appointment in January by the Superior Council of Magistrates of Suzana Inglês as chairperson of the National Electoral Commission. Opposition parties contend that her profile does not comply with legal requirements for the position and that she lacks impartiality as a senior member of the ruling party’s women’s mass organization. Some opposition parties had agreed to join the protests.
In the days before the March 10 demonstrations, groups of unknown individuals harassed, intimidated and beat several protest leaders in Luanda. In the afternoon of March 9, a dozen people wearing sunglasses and hats forced their way into the home of Dionísio Casimiro “Carbono,” a rap musician and protest leader, and beat him and other youth protesters, injuring three of them. On March7, six people in several cars abducted, beat and injured two protest organizers, Mario Domingos and “Kebamba,” who were on their way to the demonstration site in Cazenga. The victims filed complaints with the police.
In Benguela and Luanda, days before the planned protests, pamphlets were circulated, allegedly from unknown youth groups that claim to defend peace. The pamphlets called on people not to join the protests, which they allege were aimed at creating instability in the country.
On the morning of March 10, in Cazenga, a dozen police in plainclothes, including sunglasses and hats, and armed with wood and metal clubs, knives and pistols attacked a crowd of 40 demonstrators and a number of bystanders, injuring a protest leader, Luaty Beirão “Mata Frakus,” and two other protesters. Demonstrators and three journalists covering the event - from Voice of America, Rádio Despertar and a freelance journalist - sought refuge in nearby private residences to escape the violence.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the police agents at the site withdrew when the armed police in civilian clothes arrived, and did not intervene against their assaults, despite calls for help. Journalists and demonstrators heard shots being fired behind them while they were fleeing.
That afternoon, unknown people attacked and seriously injured Filomeno Vieira Lopes, a senior leader of the opposition party Bloco Democrático, and Ermelinda Freitas, the party’s municipal secretary, in Luanda’s city center. Both were waiting for a colleague who had volunteered to rescue journalists and injured demonstrators in Cazenga. Freitas told Human Rights Watch that two police agents were present during the attacks but did not intervene, ignoring calls for help by the victims and bystanders.
That evening, the state television, Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA), aired, during prime time, a phone call from an anonymous person alleging to speak for a group of citizens who claimed responsibility for the crackdown. Denying any link to the police and the authorities, the caller threatened to “react” again “with determination” to any anti-government demonstration. State television did not, at any time, air a statement from protesters, opposition parties or the civil society organizations that publicly condemned the violent crackdown.
On the morning of March 10 in Benguela, police deployed rapid intervention units, dog squads, and water cannons, around the city. Uniformed and plain-clothes police, armed with pistols, dispersed a crowd of around 60 peaceful demonstrators and arrested three men: Hugo Kalumba, a demonstration leader; Jesse Lufendo, an activist from the human rights organization Omunga, who was taking pictures, and a taxi driver who was there as a bystander.
On March 16, a court in Benguela sentenced the three men to 45 days in prison on charges of disobedience and aggression against police agents, despite the lack of any evidence against them. In court, the organizers showed evidence that they had informed the authorities about the protest in advance, according to legal requirements, and had requested police protection. They said the authorities responded only orally, two days before the planned rally, banning the protest under the pretext that the initially planned site was less than 100 meters away from the seat of a political party. The detained men were later released on bail.
On the following day, the authorities banned another protest in Benguela called by Omunga, demanding the right to peaceful assembly, under the pretext that the organization had not completed its legal registration. Faced with massive police deployment on March 17, the organization called off the protest.
Harassment, intimidation, and violence against participants and supporters or perceived sympathizers with the protests have continued since.
In a second attack on Freitas, the municipal secretary for Bloco Democrático, seven people one of them masked, forced their way into her home on March 23. They threatened her and her family and stole computers, flash drives, photo cameras, and personal documents.
On March 21, Coque Mukuta, a journalist at the privately owned Rádio Despertar, found a pamphlet at his residence in Cazenga from an alleged “movement of the youth organized to defend peace.” Human Rights Watch saw the pamphlet, which contained a hand-written note addressed personally to the journalist: “You should move to another neighborhood. Beware, bandit. You are not afraid, but beware.”
Earlier in the year, police violently cracked down on a strike in Cabinda and on two protests in Luanda’s peripheral Cacuaco neighborhood.
On February 4, police arrested 21 health workers union strikers in Cabinda city, including two senior union officials. The health workers had gone on strike in the whole province on January 30, to press for improvements of working conditions and the disbursement of overdue subsidy payments. Police deployed rapid intervention police, water cannons, and dog squads, dispersed and violently attacked the strikers in front of union’s office, where the strikers had withdrawn after being forced to move from in front of the hospital. They were released on the same day without formal charges. A union official told Human Rights Watch that police also temporarily arrested, jailed, and mistreated a striking nurse in Cabinda’s interior city Buco Zau on the same day.
On January 27, police dispersed a demonstration by Cacuaco residents demanding water and electricity and arrested 12 demonstrators. On January 31, a court sentenced eight of them to 90 days in prison plus fines and acquitted the others. The imprisoned demonstrators were later released on US$400 bail.
On February 3, public order and rapid intervention police armed with military assault rifles dispersed a crowd of around 50 youth, local residents, and family members of the jailed protesters, calling for their release. A protest organizer told Human Rights Watch that a dozen police in civilian clothes, armed with pistols, violently beat participants. Police arrested 10 demonstrators, but released them on the same day without charge. The organizers said they had informed the authorities in advance about the demonstration, but had not received any response.
Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on unnecessary or excessive use of force by police at antigovernment protests, and threats, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of journalists and political activists by police and other security agents in Angola, in the past year, including a crackdown on an anti-government rally on December 5, 2011in Luanda.
Many demonstrators involved in demonstrations since March 2011 have told Human Rights Watch that they have been subjected to intimidation, received anonymous phone calls threatening them and their families, and been followed by people in cars. Some said theyfiled complaints, but have not been able to get any information from the police about whether an investigation had taken place.
“The Angolan government should respect people’s fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and free speech rather than punishing critics and the political opposition,” Lefkow said, “The repressive actions of the government do not bode well for peaceful parliamentary elections.”