On Tuesday, Angola’s Attorney General João Maria de Sousa announced that 15 jailed activists on trial for plotting “acts of rebellion” would be transferred to house arrest. While the decision at least allows them to be at home with their families, it’s not the end of their desperate saga.
The activists were arrested in June following book club meetings where they discussed peaceful protest and democracy, inspired by Gene Sharp‘s book From Dictatorship to Democracy. A number of them went on hunger strike in protest their detention and the failure of the authorities to bring charges against them. Only in September, after three months in detention, were they formally charged with, “preparing acts of rebellion and plotting against the president and state institutions.”
Their trial, which began on November 16 and was expected to last only a week, is now in its fourth and likely to go on longer. It is being closely watched in Angola and abroad and is demonstrating the absurdity of the government’s case.
So far, the only evidence presented in court is the defendants’ admission that they attended several book-reading sessions. The prosecutors have screened secretly recorded video footage, gathered by intelligence services, that shows the activists discussing possible peaceful protests and criticizing the rule of President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been in power for 36 years.
The prosecutor also submitted in court an alleged wish list of people who could serve in a possible transitional government, though they presented no evidence showing that any of the activists wrote it.
The activists’ actions are protected by free speech provisions in Angola’s constitution and in international treaties that Angola has ratified. Frustrated by the trial and critical of the fairness of the proceedings, the activists co-signed an open letter on December 7, announcing another collective hunger strike and saying they would refuse to attend any more court sessions.
Placing the activists under house arrest during their trial was made possible by a new law that comes into effect this Friday. According to Angolan Minister of Justice Rui Mangueira, “many other” prisoners will benefit from it. The government’s quick use of the law to defuse the growing furor about this case is possible recognition that the trial is becoming an embarrassment and makes a mockery of government claims that it respects human rights.
But to really avoid embarrassment, Angolan authorities should go one step further and drop all charges against the activists. Peacefully criticizing the government, whether in a book group or out on the streets, is not a crime.