(New York) - The Angolan government should drop politically motivated criminal charges against three prominent rights advocates who go on trial on June 23, 2010, in Cabinda, Angola's oil-rich province, Human Rights Watch said today.

The criminal court in Cabinda is prosecuting under state security laws Father Raúl Tati, a Catholic priest; Francisco Luemba, a lawyer; and Belchior Lanso Tati, a university professor. They were arrested following an attack on January 8 in Cabinda on Togolese footballers who were participating in the African Cup of Nations. The separatist guerrilla movement Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) claimed responsibility for the attack.

"The Angolan government should focus on those responsible for the January 8 attack instead of charging its critics under abusive state security laws," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The outcome of this trial will show whether freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are in fact protected in Angola."

The government has charged Raúl Tati, Luemba, and Belchior Lanso Tati for unspecified "other crimes against the security of the state." Their indictment is based on documents in their possession - including public documents and private notes - and their participation in an allegedly "illegal" meeting with FLEC officials last year. Human Rights Watch has credible information that the meetings were aimed to facilitate a dialogue on peace and that a senior advisor of Angola's president encouraged the initiative.

Human Rights Watch called upon the Angolan government to end the use of vague state security laws to target peaceful critics, and to conduct a credible, impartial, and transparent investigation into the January attack. There is no indication that the Angolan government has conducted such an investigation.

Since the January attack, the Angolan authorities have imprisoned nine men for state security crimes. The only two who were arrested for direct involvement in the attack have still not been charged. Five were charged with "other acts against the security of the state," under article 26 of a 1978 state security crime law.

In April, the government briefly detained five people for wearing T-shirts with the faces of several Cabinda detainees and released them conditionally. In May, security forces prevented a public demonstration in solidarity with the detainees, which the governor had banned, and besieged the homes of the organizers. In June, a court sentenced André Zeferino Puati, an employee of the US oil company Chevron, charged with "other acts against the security of the state," for possession of FLEC documents, to three years of imprisonment.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented a disturbing pattern of human rights violations by the Angolan armed forces and state intelligence officials in Cabinda.

A 2006 peace agreement between the government of Angola and a faction of FLEC sought to bring a formal end to the armed conflict in Cabinda, which has endured since Angola's independence in 1975. However, sporadic attacks on government forces and expatriate workers have continued.