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Police officers in Luanda, Angola on December 26, 2021. © 2021 OSVALDO SILVA/AFP via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – Angolan authorities should immediately drop criminal charges against 22 protesters arrested during peaceful protests in Luanda on April 9, 2022, Human Rights Watch said today.

The activists had gathered to march against the detention of political prisoners and to call for free and fair elections. Those detained included Laurinda Gouveia and her 6-month-old baby boy, who were kept in a crowded cell without food or water for more than 48 hours.

“Angolan police are showing their longstanding disregard for basic rights by arresting and detaining peaceful protesters, including a mother with a 6-month-old baby,” said Zenaida Machado, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Angolan authorities should drop the charges against the activists and investigate the police’s conduct.”

The Luanda provincial court on April 11 charged the detained protesters with rioting and disobeying an order to disperse and ordered their release pending trial. If found guilty, they could face up to two years in prison or a fine under article 300 of the Angolan Penal Code.

A summary trial of the 22 protesters began on April 11 and continued throughout the next day. A police spokesman, Nestor Goumel, told Human Rights Watch that the activists failed to get authorization from the authorities prior to their protest, which is not required under Angolan or international law. He declined to comment on the detention of Gouveia and her baby in an overcrowded cell.

One protester said that a coalition of civil society groups and political activists notified the governments of Benguela, Luanda, Moxico, and Uige provinces two days in advance that a protest was planned. Two protesters said there are no reports of arrests or detentions in Benguela and Moxico, where the marches went ahead without incident despite the heavy presence of security forces. However, organizers in Uige province said that local police arrested at least two activists and later released them.

Four witnesses said that in Luanda just after midday on April 9, police officers arrived and ordered protesters to disperse as they prepared to start the demonstration in front of the Santana Cemetery. The police proceeded to detain some of the protesters, including Gouveia and her baby, forcing them inside police vehicles.

Article 47 of Angola’s Constitution allows citizens to protest without authorization, provided that they inform authorities in advance. But the Angolan government has repeatedly blocked and dispersed peaceful anti-government protests using unnecessary or excessive force and arbitrary arrests.

Under the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, “Participating in and organizing assemblies is a right and not a privilege, and thus its exercise does not require the authorization of the state.” The African Commission Guidelines further provide “that the presumption is always in favor of holding assemblies, and they shall not be automatically penalized, through dispersal or sanction, due to failure to notify. Lack of notification shall not be understood to make an assembly illegal.”

Gouveia’s lawyer, Simao Afonso, told Human Rights Watch that his client was initially detained alongside others in a cell at the Boavista Police Station in Luanda, and later moved to the Luanda Investigative Unit (Serviço de Investigação Criminal, or SIC) facility. In both cells she was held with her baby, together with two other women protesters and many other women detainees without food or water.

Both the Angolan Penal Code and the African Union Guidelines on the Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody and Pre-Trial Detention in Africa, known as the Luanda Guidelines, provide that the authorities should take into account the best interests of the child and to give women the opportunity to make provisions for the care of children, and consider alternatives to detention.

The Angolan authorities should immediately drop all charges against those who participated in the peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should investigate, and appropriately discipline or prosecute, all police officers, regardless of rank, implicated in abuses.

President João Lourenço’s government received praise for promoting and respecting human rights in Angola, with notable improvements in freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But the situation changed in October 2020 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 organized by activists and the main opposition party, UNITA.

“Angolan authorities should review police conduct that violates the rights of people under the constitution and international law to peaceful protests,” Machado said. “Urgent reforms are needed to avoid a recurrence of such abuses and ensure an atmosphere of respect for rights in the buildup to national elections this August.”

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