How do you know when the human rights situation in a country has sunk to a new low? How about when a 17-year-old boy is thrown into solitary confinement for weeks, without access to family, lawyers, or medical care, just for ordering T-shirts?
This is exactly what happened to Manuel Chivonde Baptista Nito Alves, an Angolan teenager known by his surname, Nito Alves, who was arrested on September 12 in Luanda, Angola’s capital, one week before a protest he had helped organize.
Nito Alves had commissioned T-shirts with the slogan “Out Disgusting Dictator,” a reference to Angola’s president, José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been in power for 34 years. The boy’s name probably didn’t help: Nito Alves was the iconic leader of a ruling party faction whose failed uprising in 1977 prompted the party’s worst purges.
After his arrest, Nito Alves was kept in solitary confinement. His family was not allowed to visit or contact him and he wasn’t allowed to speak to a lawyer in private until October 6, more than three weeks after his arrest. Despite getting diarrhoea and vomiting from the poor sanitation in the Luanda central prison, where he currently shares a cell with adults, he has not had access to medical care. Yet his detention is illegal under Angolan law, which provides that juveniles should not be held in pretrial detention. His lawyers asked the attorney-general to release him 10 days ago, but they have not received a response.
Adding insult to injury, Manuel’s lawyers recently learned that he will be the first Angolan to be charged under article 25 of a 2010 state security law. The crime of "insulting" the Republic of Angola or the president of Angola in "public meetings or by disseminating words, images, writings or sound" is punishable by up to three years in prison – a blatant violation of free expression rights.
Internationally, Angola is better known for its oil wealth than for the increasing repression that has choked its journalists, activists, and protesters in recent years. But the case of Nito Alves, now starting his fifth week in unlawful detention, sends a clear message to everyone, whether Angolan or a foreign visitor: if a 17-year-old’s T-shirt presents such a threat that officials will flout the rule of law, then there’s no assurance that anyone’s rights will be respected.