The Magnificent Seven

Last Friday, September 20, I went to attend the trial of the eight protesters, and a passer-by politician who had been arrested around Largo da Independência (Independence Square), in Luanda, the previous day. I arrived at the Ingombotas Court, known as the Police Court, with the lawyers from the human rights law firm Associação Mãos Livres: Salvador Freire, Zola Bambi and Afonso Mbinda.

I had my camera with me on a strap around my neck. The hearing was public and there was space for one more person, but the police sergeant prevented me from entering, claiming that only lawyers were allowed in. The court is located in a residential building. In the corridor, next to the courtroom entrance, were six or seven policemen. The air was stuffy, the odour of human bodies filled the air.

A policeman forbade me from entering the courtroom. I did not resist. I just went and waited at the building’s entrance.

Manuel de Vitória Pereira, 55, a teacher, seasoned trade unionist and an official of the Bloco Democrático party, was the first of the detainees to be released.  He had been distributing his party’s news bullettin in the vicinity of Largo da Independência when he was arrested.

The defence requested that the summary trial be put on the court record. Otherwise, it would have been possible for the judge to impose a sentence without the possibility of appeal. To save time, the judge postponed the trial until Monday at 8:30 am, and decided to release the accused on statements of identity and residence.

Adolfo António, Adolfo Pedro, Amândio Canhanga, António Ferreira, Joel Francisco, Pedro Teka,Roberto Gamba and Quintuango Mabiala were released. They left the court in an exuberant mood, proudly displaying the wounds they had received when beaten and tortured while in police custody.

The police, on the other hand, were clearly unhappy with the court’s decision to release the detainees. “We don’t understand this. This cannot be!” one officer complained. I took dozens of photographs, and recorded a short video of youths chanting “freedom!” and singing songs about “the dictator Zé Dú” – the nickname of President Dos Santos.

The eight who had been released did not even have money to travel to the Provincial Criminal Investigation Directorate (DPIC) where they had been detained overnight, to fetch their belongings that had been confisicated. Journalist Alexandre Solombe offered some of them a lift, and they started walking towards his car. As they left, I realised that while taking photographs I had missed the opportunity to interview the youths about their experiences in detention. I followed after them, and phoned Alexandre to ask them to wait for me.

In the street I interviewed Adolfo António, 23. He told me how the police had arrested him on the day of the demonstration and kicked him all over his body “for insisting on going to the Largo de Independência” where the demonstration took place. When they arrived at DPIC “an officer known only by the name of Pincho hit me twice in the face because I greeted my colleagues who were already there”.

When Pincho sent them to the cells he ordered other prisoners to torture them, but according to Adolfo “the other prisoners didn’t lay a hand on us as they knew we were fighting for a just cause”.

While talking to Adolfo, I sent someone to run and find the other newly-released detainees so I could interview them too. Robert Gamba “Pastor”, 24, told me how his group of about 10 demonstrators had managed to break through the police cordon surrounding the demonstration, and got as far as São Paulo, several kilometres away.

“A patrol was following us and some of us were captured. They beat us up on the spot, and inside the police car they stamped on us to the point where Quintuango Mabiala “Dimas Roussef” and I became unconsciousness,” Pastor explained.

The group was taken to the Ninth Police Station in Sambizanga slum. There they were met by Commander Francisco Notícia, who has gained a fearsome reputation in  dealing with anti-government demonstrators.

“The commander knew everything about my personal life,” Pastor said. “He told me I was a threat to Sambizanga.”

Pastor was still suffering from chest pains as a result of the beating he received. He could not talk much, saying only that he was traumatised.

At that moment, we heard police sirens and a column of five vehicles from the Rapid Intervention Police – the anti-riot squad known colloquially as the Ninjas – came into view. I told some young people who had been listening to the interviews to get away if they did not want to get caught up in events. I was left with the eight who had been released from detention, plus Alexandre Solombe and Coque Mukuta, the Voice of America correspondent, who had joined us a few minutes earlier. Some of the young people were very worried to see that we were being besieged. I tried to reassure them that there was nothing to fear: they had been set free, they had the court documents to prove it, and we had every right to be talking to one another.

One of them, Amândio Canhanga, 20, introduced himself by his activist nickname, “Sita Valles”. I asked him why he had taken the name of a woman, and of one of the best known victims of the massacres of  May 27, 1977, carried out by forces loyal to the late President Agostinho Neto. This wasn’t the first time that I had heard of today’s young people adopting the names of the victims of 1977, and I was curious to know why. But my question was interrupted by the arrival of the Ninjas.

Freed by a Judge, Detained by the Police

About 45 members of the riot police surrounded us with their guns, shields, and tear gas launchers, and we were at their mercy. The other two journalists and I explained we were collecting statements about the judicial hearing. The commanding officer said we had to leave. Joel Francisco and some of the other demonstrators got into Alexandre’s car. Adolfo Campos was worried about me, and said I should get in the car first. Meanwhile, the police were receiving instructions by telephone, and ordered those who were in the car to get out. After that there were no more questions, just orders and brutality. They led us to a closed police van, and took away our phones and my camera. Our captors did not tell us why we were being detained or where they were taking us. They noted our names and passed them on to their superiors. We waited for a while inside the van: three journalists and seven demonstrators. Quintuango Mabiala had left just a few minutes before.

A short while later, a young man dressed in a suit and tie got into the van, greeted us all and shook my hand, saying he was pleased to meet me. We assumed he was an agent from the powerful state security services, which answer only to the President. When a police officer took our names, I learnt the name of the man in the suit: Mário de Carvalho. We had a friendly conversation, sometimes talking in English, which surprised the police officers. Mário’s friendly manner calmed some of the youths, but annoyed others.

They took us to the riot squad’s main base in Calemba. From the front it looks like a well-maintained building, but behind there was a group of ramshackle huts. I couldn’t help asking why the elite police unit was housed in such appalling conditions.

“Those are our boxing rings,” one of the riot police officers replied. At this, one of the youngsters asked if that was where we were going to be taken out to be beaten.

As soon as the vehicle stopped, we realised we were like rats in a trap. Through the window I could see one of the commanders coming towards us. Meanwhile, we became the object of curiosity for the Ninjas who were present at the base. They brought a camerawoman, Celestina Jacinto “Zuca”, dressed in riot police uniform, who recognised the journalists.

“You realise I’m just doing my job,” she said. But her colleagues wanted stronger pictures, and made her get into the van for some close-ups. Encouraged by the presence of the commander, Zuca changed her manner and launched some insults at us before getting out of the van, happy with her pictures.

The commander then ordered us to lie face-down on the floor of the van, and not to look at anyone else. The seven youths and Coque Mukuta formed a tangled mass of human bodies, squeezed into a confined space. Alexandre, Mário and I had more space, with me lying on top of them. With my head next to the door, I clearly recognised the commander who got into the van, and stomped on my back with all his might. He stomped on some others too and then got out of the van. He order two of his strongest-looking officers, with such heavy boots, to carry on with the stomping on our backs

From outside we heard a chorus of threats and insults. “They must be shot!”, “Why aren’t they dead yet?”, “Kill these guys, they’re just making work for us.” Two huge Ninjas got into the van and stamped on the prisoners with their heavy boots. One of them was kind enough to ask me to take my glasses off, “so we don’t disfigure yourself when we beat you.” He ordered me to bend my head, and I felt a violent blow on the back of my skull. I don’t know what instrument he used, but I can still feel the pain.

I wondered what the time was, and how long we had been there.

I thought of the courage of the young people who have been subjected to worse brutality than this over the last two years since the anti-government demonstrations began. Some of them will carry the scars resulting from the police beatings for the rest of their lives.

In the context of the political order laid down by Dos Santos, these youths have no rights. They are children who must obey a dictatorial father. Full stop.

My admiration and respect for them grew. They are the heroes created by the bestiality of the president’s men. The regime can no longer mask its lack of intellectual and political ability to respond to the pressure brought by these young men, which call themselves the Revolutionay Movement, in any other way other than violence.

The Transfer

At this point, for the second time that day, the Ninjas noted down our names, occupations and addresses. But one of the officers thought the process was taking too long, and that we had only been taken to their garrisson “to be taught a lesson”. He ordered us to be taken, one at a time and with our heads bent down, to a prison van. Two other men, dressed in shorts and sandals, joined the group. The van left, with sirens blaring, to an unknown destination. One of the men in sandals urinated shamelessly inside the van.

We arrived at DPIC. There an officer greeted the man who had been urinating in the van, and introduced him as “our colleague from SINFO [the state information service], from the unit next door.” We were made to walk in single file to the cells.

In the corridor, an officer took down our names, for the third time that day. The riot police told us to take off all our belts, jewellery and shoelaces and to take out our wallets. But only the three journalists and Mário had such things with them: the demonstrators had had their belongings confiscated the previous day, and had not had the chance to retrieve them. Only at this point I noticed that the youth’s shoes had no shoelaces and that none of them had a belt. For them, that streaping procedure was unnecessary.

Journalists Freed, Prison for the Youth

One of the detectives brought orders to take the journalists and all their belongings to the provincial director of DPIC, Vidal Sermão.

They then gave us back the belongings that the Ninjas had confiscated. My camera had been destroyed, and the battery and memory card removed. My mobile phone was returned without its battery. Mário de Carvalho’s iPad was broken. At that point we learnt that far from being a spy as we had assumed, he was a businessman  who worked in an office near where we had been detained, and who had been arrested in his office because he had supposedly been using his iPad to take photographs of us being arrested. Alexandre’s two phones had had their cameras destroyed, the lenses prised out.

We went into the director’s office, a large and well-furnished room. There the second in command at DNIC told us that we were not accused or suspected of any crime. Four hours later, we were finally set free.

We protested about what had happened to us, and asked what would happen to the youths. Despite the evasive answers from the official, we realised that they were still in custody. We asked who would compensate us for our damaged equipment. Like a good bureaucrat, Vidal Sermão reminded us we had a right to make a complaint. That seemed to be the only right we had. But to whom could we complain?

In the meantime, the young men would remain detained. They had been detained and then freed on court orders. After 20 minutes of freedom they were detained again, without knowing why and without knowing how long they would be held.

Those seven detainees are the magnificent seven. I have witnessed their courage and endurance in defending freedom and pushing for social change.

With two thirds of its population aged under 25, Angola has one of the youngest populations in the world. Faced with corruption and injustice in their country, the strength and courage of these youth is an inspiration to all Angolans.

Along with many others who have endured prison and torture for believing in freedom and justice, these magnificent seven are a shinning example of hope for Angola.