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A trial started in Angola this week that may finally shed light on the bloody events of April 16, 2015, when a police operation against a doomsday religious sect left many dead. The government says nine police officers and 13 armed members of the “Light of the World” sect died – but few believe the official version. Opposition groups and local activists say the death toll of unarmed sect followers at Mount Sume’ in Huambo province was significantly higher and allege it was a massacre.

Destroyed huts are seen in Mount Sumi, Angola, in this picture taken May 3, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Julino Kalupeteka, the leader of the sect, and 10 of his followers face charges of murder and attempted murder of police officers, civil disobedience, resisting arrest, and illegal possession of firearms. The trial is their first opportunity to tell their version of what happened.

Clearly, the undisputed death of nine police officers requires justice and authorities should ensure that the court can conduct the trial independently, impartially, and competently. But government witnesses at the trial should also be transparent about the conduct of the police and respond to allegations that scores of unarmed people, including women and children, may have been gunned down.

The clash erupted when police sought to bring Kalupeteka in for questioning over allegations of encouraging civil disobedience among some 2,000 of his followers. Kalupeteka led a breakaway faction of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and believed the world would end in 2015. He had encouraged his followers to abandon their lives and retreat to a secluded camp.

Angolan authorities say Kalupeteka’s bodyguards attacked them with firearms and machetes when they went to arrest him, and, in response, officers killed 13 of the leader’s guards. Opposition groups and activists say that after the initial clash, which resulted in the death of a number of police officers, reinforcements went in to “revenge” the deaths and used excessive and lethal force against hundreds of unarmed sect followers, killing many in the process.

The government denies that scores died, yet they refused requests from local human rights groups, opposition members of parliament, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for an independent investigation.

Immediately after the incident, security forces cordoned off the area and declared it a military zone. Activists say soldiers buried many bodies in mass graves and many families of sect members say they have not been able to bury their loved ones. Only two weeks after the incident was a small group of parliamentarians and journalists granted access in an orchestrated and closely monitored visit.

Kalupeteka’s trial highlights the need for justice – both for the families of the police officers killed and for the families of the sect members who died. The trial should bring into evidence the government’s own internal investigations into the events. In any event the government should make them public. After all, if there is nothing to hide, why keep the reports confidential and why not permit an independent investigation into what happened?

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