Lawyer Faces Up to 5 Years in Jail for Inviting Congolese Journalists

Human rights lawyer Arão Bula Tempo has been  formally charged with the crimes of attempted “collaboration with foreigners to constrain the Angolan state” and rebellion. He faces a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment for the first indictment, and 12 years for rebellion. The court informed Tempo, and other defendant Manuel Biongo of the charges on October 22.

Arão Tempo, who is the chair of the Angolan Bar Association in Cabinda, was given a  conditional release in May after two months in jail. He had been arrested and jailed on March 14 at the border town of Massabi, along with his client Manuel Biongo,  a businessman who has  also been  charged with attempted collaboration with foreigners.

The public prosecutor António Nito accused them of inviting foreign journalists from the Republic of Congo to cover a protest against human rights violations and poor governance in the exclave. The protest was  going to be held on March 14.  The authorities banned it and it did not take place.

The human rights activist, José Marcos Mavungo, who organized the protest,  was arrested and jailed on the same day when he was leaving morning mass. On September 14,  Judge Jeremias Sofrera  sentenced him to six years in prison in a trial deemed to have been grossly unfair by observers and experts.  The most glaring aberration from the trial was that the key witness said he had nothing to do with the statement that the prosecution presented to the court.  Amnesty International declared Mavungo a prisoner of conscience.

The charges brought against Arão Tempo and Manuel Biongo are bogus and solely based on the Angolan government’s consistent and deliberate denial of fundamental rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.  These charges fit into a pattern in which the authorities will use anything to intimidate or imprison anyone deemed to be a potential adversary of the regime. We are not talking here about bending the law; the Angolan authorities have been continuously breaking the law at the expense of hapless citizens.

Holding and organizing a peaceful protest is a right protected by the Angolan constitution, as is inviting journalists – domestic or foreign – to cover any public event. The two main political parties in Angola, MPLA and UNITA, as well as other organizations, often invite foreign journalists to their events.  In any case, even if Tempo and his colleagues had invited journalists from the  Republic  of Congo, they would have had to obtain visas, and possibly be vetted by the authorities.

The crime of inviting foreign journalists

The obsession with using the judicial system at any cost to repress dissenting views, has resulted in a truly  Kafkaesque twist: Arão Tempo, for instance,  is being charged with two false crimes against the security of the state. First, for allegedly inviting journalists who never showed up to cover a protest that did not take place. Secondly, for appearing to be associated with the protest organizer who was already in prison, charged with rebellion.

The prosecutor claims that by inviting foreign journalists to cover a banned protest that would “foreseeably” have led to violent confrontations with the police and bloodshed, the accused “tried at all costs to collaborate with foreigners to oblige the state to submit to external interference.”

The essence of the law is that a citizen should appear in court to answer charges that are deemed by the prosecution to be valid beyond reasonable doubt. Vague suppositions and generalizations are discounted at once; the prosecutors must come up with concrete evidence. In the Mavungo trial, the prosecution produced explosive materials that could not be linked to the accused – or, indeed, any institution. In the Tempo case, which journalists are we talking about, and what justifies the assertion that they had bad intentions? Also, what were the intentions of this anonymous country that was trying to intervene in the internal affairs of the country?

Rebellion and stroke

As  evidence for the additional charge of rebellion against Arão Tempo, the prosecutor quotes text messages on the protest exchanged with Mavungo. The activist is referred to as the convicted “mentor of the protest inciting violence and rebellion”. The text messages found on Tempo’s seized mobile phone are interpreted as evidence for alleged “incitement of civil war and rebellion.”

Arão Tempo’s only “crime” is the conviction that protecting and promoting human rights is the lawyer’s ethical obligation and professional duty.

Since his conditional release, the judicial authorities have repeatedly denied his requests to leave the enclave of Cabinda to attend a human rights conference in Benguela, to travel for professional reasons or to seek the medical treatment of his choice. Due to the repeated harassment and threats by security agents since May, Tempo believes he is not safe in state-owned hospitals.

On October 9, Tempo suffered a stroke, which resulted in partial paralysis of his face and in speech difficulties. On the following day, he requested  authorization from the court to leave the enclave to seek urgent medical treatment. Court officials denied the request alleging that the chief justice in Cabinda was on vacation.  Here is a patent example of the increased cold-heartedness of the Angolan government.  Mavungo has been repeatedly denied proper medical care.  This has been the case with other political prisoners in several parts of the country.

With the cases of Arão Tempo and Manuel Biongo, the count of human rights activists and others falsely charged with crimes against the security of the state this year amounts to twenty. The criminal proceedings against Arão Tempo and Manuel Biongo confirm the worrying trend of abuse of the judiciary in the repression of peaceful dissent  in the country.  What is truly sad is that the misuse of the judicial system is resulting in the discrediting of one of the country’s key institutions.  There is no better evidence of a disreputable judiciary than seeing innocent citizens being sent to jail on the basis of evidence that cannot stand serious scrutiny.