The Use of the Judiciary as a Poisoned Arrow against Critics

João Domingos da Rocha, 28 years old, has been held at Luanda Central Penitenciary under preventive detention for seven years. He is suspected of having stolen a bundle of  second-hand clothes.  I learnt of this case through the political prisoners Benedito Jeremias “Dito” and Itler Jessy Chiconde who had been held at the same prison.

On one hand there is Luaty Beirão who has been drawing much international solidarity to the cause of freedom of expression in Angola through his hunger strike, which lasted 36 days.  On the other hand, there is the case of “Dito” and Itler who, days before, were tortured by prison guards.  This is a clear instance of the cruelty of the judicial system in the way it treats the disenfranchised members of society.

“Dito”, Itler and Luaty, as well as the other 12 in prison, are awaiting trial while under preventive detention.  They have been indicted of rebellion and plotting against President Dos Santos’ life. And how did they prepare this “coup”? They would meet to discuss books and non-violent forms of protest.

The massive international solidarity for the 15 is already an unprecedented historical landmark in mobilizing civil society in the struggle for freedom in Angola.

The abusive and unjustified detention of the 15 has also put an end to President José Eduardo dos Santos’s personality cult. There has been a boomerang effect which has irreparably damaged the image and international legitimacy of the president.  José Eduardo dos Santos will figure in history books as a dictator who, after thirty six years in power, and as commander-in-chief of one of best equipped armies on the African continent, accused seventeen “kids” of trying to overthrow him by planning to burn tires.  That is indeed the case: the indictment states that the activists planned to march towards the presidential palace burning tires  with the aim of “ overthrowing the president if he resisted the pressure from the protestors.”

While these brave young men are awaiting trial, the public has begun to look closely at the judicial system.

With their agreement, I have taken on the task of making the work of “Dito” and Itler further known.  While they were at the Luanda Central Penitenciary, they enabled me to speak directly to prisoners to have a better understanding of the state of the justice system in Angola.  Both showed much restraint, solidarity and social awareness.  They gave little emphasis to their own plight as they wanted me to hear the stories of the voiceless.

On 23 October, the state-owned daily Jornal de Angola had an article on its front page entitled “Thousands of prisoners are freed thanks to a presidential decree.” The story referred to a presidential decree ordering the release of prisoners who had served half of up to a twelve year sentence.

“I believe that they forgot me. I am an orphan and I do not have family in Luanda.  I am from Kwanza Norte [province], “ lamented João Domingos da Rocha, who has been in preventive detention for seven years under case No. 2675/8.

If João Domingos da Rocha had been charged, tried and found guilty of the crime in question, he would have been sentenced, at the maximum, for five years.  This is an example, among others, of the inhuman practices of the Angolan judicial system.

There is also the case of Justino Longia, 26 years old. He has been in jail for five years, under preventive detention, on suspicion of stealing two bundles of second-hand clothes.  He is yet to be charged under the case No. 2904/10. Then there is the case of Umba Samuel, 36 years old; he has been under preventive detention for four years for having stolen, according to his own confession, the equivalent of three hundred Euros.  This is under case No. 5662/11.

The detainees who have been claiming their rights run the risk of being assigned to the “reeducation hall.” “They [the officers in charge of the punishment] give electric shocks to the prisoners who claim their rights.  After that, they beat the complainers severely at will,” revealed one of the victims.

President José Eduardo dos Santos has the legal power of giving “direct instructions” to the Attorney General of the Republic, and the public prosecution in general. He often gives these orders to intimidate or to punish those who make any criticism of his rule. He does not give them to guarantee that the rule of law is respected.

The struggle for freedom of expression in Angola, therefore, has come to consist of monitoring and investigating the arbitrariness of the judiciary. It has been the poison at the tip of the arrow used by the rulers to trespass the citizens’ rights, and for political harassment.