Members of the Independence Movement of Cabinda protesting against the arrest of activist in Cabinda in February 2019.

© 2019 Private

A court in Angola’s oil-rich province of Cabinda has ordered the release of 13 of the 63 activists arrested during a massive police crackdown earlier this year ahead of a pro-independence protest.

The authorities made the arrests between January 28 and February 1, ahead of an announced protest to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the 1885 treaty that gave Cabinda the status of a protectorate of former colonial Portugal. Many of the activists are members of the Movimento Independista de Cabinda (Independence Movement of Cabinda), a peaceful separatist group that wants independence or autonomy from Angola. State prosecutors charged them with public disturbance, rebellion, and criminal association.

The activists’ lawyer, Arão Tempo, told DW Africa that the Cabinda court judge ruled state prosecutors did not follow the law or present evidence to justify the arrests of 13 of the activists. But the judge ordered the other 50 activists to remain in jail as they await trial.

The partial releases notwithstanding, the bottom line is that all 63 were arrested for exercising their fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and expression. Many of them were arrested while peacefully protesting in front of the police department in Cabinda, to demand the release of those detained during the crackdown.

Over the past year, the Angolan government has made significant progress in respecting the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, allowing several protests and marches to take place across the country. But the situation in the Cabinda enclave remains tense. Reacting to the case, Minister of Interior Angelo Tavares told Lusa News Agency  the activists were trying “to change the institutional framework of State unity.”

On March 1, police arrested 10 more activists who had gathered in a square in Cabinda city, to demand the release of their fellow activists. They were released the following day without charge but accused the police of beatings and ill treatment while in detention.

Angolan authorities need to stop treating Cabinda activists as enemies of the state. Respecting their right to peaceful protest is an important step towards building confidence and trust.