A Day in Court to Remember

Today I had a memorable court experience. I went to witness the trial of a fellow journalist, Ramiro Aleixo, and found myself stealing away moments of his day in court. The judge and the public prosecutor spent a brief but distracting time expressing their displeasure with an article I wrote on the first day of the proceedings, on May 11.

Ramiro Aleixo stands vaguely accused of defaming and slandering the “military justice” for two articles he wrote nearly five years ago on the trial and conviction of the former director of the Angolan Intelligence Service (Serviços de Inteligência Externa), General Fernando Garcia Miala. The former spymaster had initially been under investigation for an attempted coup, but was later charged and convicted for disobedience. For calling the trial a farce, the journalist was put on the dock.

Upon realizing my presence in the courtroom, judge Alfredo Lourenço Martins had quite a reaction. He interrupted the proceedings, and let me know that I had not been authorized to be there. Even though trials are supposed to be public, I explained to the judge that I had requested permission from the clerk, who granted me. At that point, there were only two people in the audience, the defendant’s brother and myself.

Then, I promptly requested permission to leave the courtroom, to avoid causing further inconvenience to the proceedings. But the judge allowed me to stay, and briefly questioned me about the article I had written, pointing out what he considered to be flawed statements, and the consequences of allowing journalists in the audience. In the article, I had mentioned the dimly lit conditions of the courtroom, and the judge pointed out that he had not counted the lamps before. I looked up, and had a sense of a mission partially accomplished for the ceiling had now 32 lamps lit out of 60, against the previous 17. At least some broken ones had been replaced.

Nevertheless, the trial resumed with the defense attorney, Benja Satula, presenting his final arguments. Benja Satula stressed that the Luanda Provincial Court had no jurisdiction over the case, for his client published the articles in a regional weekly newspaper based in the coastal province of Benguela. The attorney highlighted that the term “military justice” for which his client is accused of insulting is an abstract concept, and the accusation needed to be more specific. He illustrated how the public prosecutor based the accusation solely on the Penal Code, without once referring the media law. Mr. Satula also reiterated that other journalists had published articles in other weekly newspapers calling the trial of general Miala a farce. Some preceded the defendant’s writings, but were ignored by the military justices.

In some instances the public prosecutor, Teresa Ngueve, interrupted the defense’s allegations, repeating her accusation line that the facts were clearly stated in the article and, as such, needed no further evidence or argumentation.

The public prosecutor also kept leaning towards the judge and whispering to his ears for something that was troubling her. Finally, the judge let prosecutor Teresa Ngueve speak. To my surprise, she asked me to rise, and proceeded to question me about the article I had written. “Are you aware of what you have written?” I said yes. She said the article stated only falsehoods, and lashed out at me for the “misuse” of her husband’s surname as hers, when she only uses her family name. Although she never mentioned the surname that she should be referred to, she wanted to know how I found her husband’s surname. In my defense, I humbly apologized for the “misuse” of the name, and stated that the honorable prosecutor had every right to sue me if I offended her. She said she would not sue me. However, with brash authority, she demanded: “You must write well, otherwise you will face a summary trial here.”

After the public prosecutor vented her anger at the journalist in the audience, the judge adjourned the trial of the defendant journalist for June 5, to pass his verdict.

Although the Angolan justice system is known for being atypical, a lawyer explained that the sideline questioning was simply “absurd” even by Angolan standards. Maybe it was just as absurd or provocative to write about the trial of a colleague and still show up in court. Sometimes, it is too complicated to make sense of reality in Angola.