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Angolan activist Nito Alves receives assistance from paramedics after being beaten by alleged plainclothes police officers during a peaceful anti-government protest in Luanda, on November 11, 2020. © Private

(Johannesburg) – Angolan police used live bullets, teargas, and dogs to disperse a peaceful anti-government protest, killing one protester, in the capital, Luanda, on November 11, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Police severely beat the well-known activists Nito Alves and Laurinda Goveia, who are both in critical condition, and arbitrarily arrested a third activist, Luaty Beirao.

Footage posted on social media shows people running through Luanda’s streets, seeking places to hide as police indiscriminately fired live bullets and teargas at them. Officers also beat protesters with batons, threw them inside police vans, and drove them away to unknown locations, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

“The police shooting at peaceful protesters is outrageous as well as criminal,” said Zenaida Machado, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should thoroughly investigate the police use of unnecessary lethal force and hold those responsible to account.”

In the early hours of November 11, Angola’s Independence Day, thousands of heavily armed police and plainclothes officers were deployed to the streets of Luanda ahead of an anti-government protest called by civil society groups to demand jobs and local elections in 2021.

Police set up roadblocks and closed the main roads to the populous Cacuaco, Benfica, and Viana neighborhoods, local media reported. A journalist told Human Rights Watch that there was a “massive presence” of police with dogs near the Santa Ana Cemetery, a meeting point chosen by the demonstration’s organizers. The police dispersed protesters who tried to gather at the cemetery’s entrance with teargas and beat them with batons, a video on social media showed.

Another social media video showed the body of an unidentified man on the floor with blood coming from his head. Two activists said that at about 11 a.m. the police had fired live bullets to disperse protesters who gathered near the Congolese market, and had shot the man. Hours later, a police spokesman confirmed to journalists that a man had been killed by a gunshot to his head, but declined to confirm whether the officers were responsible.

Activists Goveia and Alves were seriously injured during the crackdown. Goveia passed out after inhaling teargas. A witness said that apparent police in civilian clothes wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying pistols severely beat Alves. Both activists were taken to Prenda Hospital in Luanda in critical condition.

Several Luanda residents said that the police were stopping, searching, and questioning everyone who tried going to the center of Luanda. “Those who [the police thought] did not have a serious reason to be in the city center were sent back or arrested,” one said.

A live Facebook broadcast shared by Beirao showed him with a group of protesters walking through the streets on the way to the protest, then being stopped and searched by more than 20 police officers. A police officer forcibly interrupted the live video just minutes after the officers found a banner that Beirao was carrying in his bag with the handwritten words “Arrest, Kill, Obey.” A witness said the police immediately arrested Beirao and two other activists and took them to an unidentified location. The authorities should promptly provide information on their whereabouts.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms “[p]rohibit the use of firearms and ammunition that cause unwarranted injury or present an unwarranted risk.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stated in a general comment that “[f]irearms are not an appropriate tool for the policing of assemblies, and must never be used simply to disperse an assembly.… [A]ny use of firearms by law enforcement officials in the context of assemblies must be limited to targeted individuals in circumstances in which it is strictly necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

President João Lourenço’s rule has been hailed as a new era in promoting and respecting human rights in Angola, with notable improvements in freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But the situation dramatically changed in October, when the president, as part of measures to control the spread of Covid-19, issued a decree banning all public gatherings of more than five people, just before a planned demonstration called by activists and the main opposition party, Unita.

Security forces brutally suppressed the October 24 protest – against corruption, massive unemployment, rising costs of living, and loss of political freedoms. The authorities arrested over 100 people, including journalists, prompting condemnation by rights groups. President Lourenço expressed public regret for the arrests of the journalists but did not announce any measures against police officers implicated in the use of excessive force.

“The Angolan government should not use Covid-19 measures as an excuse for heavy-handed policing and violent repression of peaceful protests,” Machado said. “The government should take concrete steps against those who commit abuses against peaceful demonstrators.”

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