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

(Johannesburg) – The Angolan government should immediately end its longstanding crackdown on political and human rights activists in the oil-rich province of Cabinda, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since President João Lourenço took office in September 2017, Cabinda authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained over 100 activists for engaging in human rights and peaceful pro-independence activities in the province. In the most recent major incident, on March 25, 2023, police detained 3 organizers and 45 participants attending a human rights workshop.

“The Angolan government is tightening its repression of Cabinda activists,” said Zenaida Machado, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should end its wrongful arrests and respect the rights of Cabinda’s people to peacefully demonstrate and protest.”

On the morning of March 25, Angolan security forces in eight pickup trucks raided Colegio Privado, a private school in Cabinda, breaking into one of the classrooms where dozens of people were attending a human rights workshop organized by Conacce Chaplains, a Christian nongovernmental organization, several participants told Human Rights Watch.

Police officers detained the workshop trainer, Evêque Kavada Rock, a Congo-Brazzaville national, and seized training materials, including several notebooks, a slide projector, a computer, and participants’ handbags. Witnesses said the security forces neither presented a court order nor provided identification or grounds for the raid.

“It looked like a police raid into a drug factory,” one participant who was detained for several hours said. “They rounded up all the participants and forced us into their pickup trucks.”

The media and several activists reported that the police arrested 45 participants at the site. The police also arrested three workshop organizers the same day at their homes, their lawyers said. Most were questioned and released over the following 48 hours, but their lawyers said that seven were charged with criminal association and rebellion, which carries criminal punishments of up to eight years in prison.

Those charged and detained are Kavada Rock and prominent Cabinda civil society leaders Alexandre Kwanga, Alberto Macosso, Gomes Tangui, Franscisco Lufuilo, Mateus Gimbi, and Wilfrido Gomes. All seven were released between the last week of April and the first week of May and are awaiting trial, said a lawyer providing free legal aid.

“I wasn’t even at the meeting, but they came to fetch me and then kept me in an overcrowded jail for over a month without any good reason,” said Kwanga, president of the Cabinda Human Rights Association. He alleged that the Cabinda authorities sought to intimidate local activists and made use of state institutions to crack down on free assembly rights.

The human rights situation in Cabinda has remained poor since President Lourenço took office in 2017, with many activists being arrested for exercising their fundamental rights. In this regard, Lourenço has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, President José Eduardo dos Santos, by responding to the situation in the province with violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters and activists, among other abuses.

Angolan authorities have refused all the requests by Cabinda independence activists to peacefully demonstrate, contrary to the Angolan Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The police have violently interrupted marches and protests and arbitrarily detained the participants.

In June 2020, plainclothes police officers arbitrarily arrested the president of the separatist Union for the Independence of Cabinda and his vice president after they displayed the organization’s leaflets in the city streets of Cabinda. Their lawyers allege that the police officers physically assaulted the two during the arrest.

In January 2020, state security forces rounded up activists from their homes, after they attempted to hold a protest in December 2019 to demand independence from Angola.

Between January 28 and February 1, 2019, police arrested 63 Cabinda independence activists 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 colonial Portugal. Many of the activists were members of the Movimento Independista de Cabinda (Independence Movement of Cabinda), a peaceful separatist group that wants independence or autonomy from Angola.

On August 10, 2018, police arrested 13 activists advocating for Cabinda’s independence during a meeting to organize a public debate on the enclave's autonomy. A week later, a court acquitted the group of charges of crimes against state security, ruling that the meeting was not illegal.

“Arresting people for simply advocating for their rights only serves to fuel discontent among Cabinda’s population,” Machado said. “The Angolan authorities should stop attacking activists and drop all charges against those jailed without credible evidence of lawbreaking.”

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