Another Day in Court

Across the street, a police camera van monitors the movements outside the courthouse. The trial of the 17 activists charged with plotting a rebellion and attempting to assassinate the president by discussing literature on nonviolence, has attracted many other activists who want to express their support for the defendants.

There is also another element of sophistication in this trial. The Military Intelligence and Security Service of the Angolan Armed Forces has deployed 80 officers to the trial. Half of them pose as either unknown relatives of the defendants or law students to fill the courtroom and, thus, enable the police to keep the unwanted activists, diplomats, observers and public away, with the excuse of the courtroom lacking space. The other half is deployed in the vicinity.

Each defendant has the right to have two relatives in the courtroom, to whom the police issue credentials. No credentials no entry. That is how open the trial is.

The profiled activists, who have been attempting to protest or band together in public are easily identified thanks to the sophisticated police camera van, and can be easily picked off the street preemptively.

Last Friday, the police rounded up 12  such activists by the courthouse who dared to attend the trial, which is supposed to be public. Upon being refused, they hung out as a band of brothers in solidarity with their fellow activists on trial. The ruling MPLA has already set up its own group of “protesters” by the courthouse, called “Justice without Pressure”, to cheer for the magistrates of the case, and the police have already been assigned to protect them, especially when  harassing the “other protesters” and journalists. “Justice without Pressure” is a countermeasure against rights’ activists and others who have been criticizing the court’s political partisanship in favor of the regime.

So, the police do not like the un-credentialed activists, and carried out orders to lock them up at the Benfica Police station for six hours until the trial session was over.

One of the activists, Alex Chabalala, who for the past three years has been a regular target of police beatings, even praised the police for just slapping him and a few others in face. “They were nice, they did not torture us this time. They even gave us water to drink”, said the activist.

In the Courtroom

Judge Domingos Januário (far right) has offered a youtube video into evidence in court against a defendant.

It is Friday. The main body of evidence on the “criminal intent” of the youths is finally disclosed to the defense.

It is a video secretly filmed by one of the youths, with a spy camera during the discussions among the activists. One of them was a state security agent, and is not among the accused. This is the video also shown to Western diplomats and Members of Parliament by the attorney general, Army General João Maria de Sousa, last June, days after the arrests of 15 of the 17 defendants. The regime showed the evidence to third parties earlier on, but the defense was only allowed to see it exhibited during the trial.

In the video, the author of the alleged outlandish manual on nonviolence, Domingos da Cruz, is leading the discussions stressing his stance on nonviolent resistance to dictatorship. He and the rapper Luaty Beirão discuss the eventuality of the police firing at protesters and killing some of them, if the youths eventually manage to hold a mass protest. Domingos da Cruz, takes a staunch Gandhian approach, and defends the demobilization of the crowd to avoid the loss of lives. It is hypothetical as the youths are not seen planning a protest or any concrete action, but discussing how they could learn about the struggle for the freedoms enshrined in the Angolan Constitution.

Since 2011, most of the attempted anti-regime protests, either by a handful or dozens of activists, have been violently dispersed. In 2012, Luaty Beirão, went into hiding for nearly four months, after a string of brutal attacks against him, and threats against his family if he continued to “agitate” or protest.  Agents of the regime even sent a teddy bear to his grandmother, whom he lived with, for Christmas, threatening to burn down her house with the family inside if her grandson continued to upset the regime.

These fellows, who have not been able to assemble in the streets or hold a successful protest, are the ones now suddenly endowed with powers to overthrow the president? They are accused  of intending to burn tyres in the presidential palace to smoke out its main resident.

The defense complains about the barrage of questions as a delaying tactic for lack of evidence. The defense also argues that the information taken from the defendants’ computers is null as the police had no search warrants. Judge Domingos Januário adjourns to consult the law books. He is a peculiar judge. He has watched a youtube video of defendant Nito Alves criticizing the regime in Brazil, and personally offered it into evidence in court.

The trial continues on Monday.

For five hours, the public prosecutor Isabel Fançony, the woman who hides her face under a wig and sunglasses during the proceedings, fires up around 100 questions against Domingos da Cruz. He replies to them all with “nothing to declare”; and, “I choose to remain silent.”

On Monday, the judge comes up with his decision. He charges that during the investigative phase all the police need is the green light of the public prosecution.

Defense lawyers keep overstepping the boundaries. So, the prosecutor threatens to lodge a criminal case against lawyer Luís Nascimento for questioning the forensic work of the police. The lawyer replies that he is now too old to be intimidated, and lodges an appeal to the Supreme Court.

It is Tuesday.

Nelson Cultura, one of the 12 youths arrested on Friday, goes back to the courthouse. He unsuccessfully tries to enter again. The police mention how well they know him, and as there is no crowd to make them jittery, they tell Nelson Cultura to disappear.

On the same day, Nuno Álvaro Dala, is the fourth political prisoner to take the stand. The police do not allow his lawyer, Walter Tondela, to shake hands with him or confer with him. As the trial begins, he complains to the judge and the prosecution, who both ignore him. He is not allowed to dictate the incident for the transcript of the court hearing. The lawyer complains that the judge and the prosecution are not allowing him to defend his client. The exchange with the authorities ends with the lawyer leaving the courtroom.

As the hearing resumes, Nuno Álvaro Dala reiterates what is in the nonviolent literature they were studying. The youths are against coups, and believe it could only worsen the situation by sowing more “chaos”.

Thursday, in the morning, another clip of the secretly filmed video is shown. In it, Domingos da Cruz speaks of the need for their struggle for freedom to be grounded on national interests and support. He wants as little external influence as possible.

The clip also shows him discussing with Luaty Beirão  the hypothetical intervention of the Angolan Armed Forces to quell dissent or to take control of the situation. He is of the opinion that the military forces are not to be challenged or confronted. Luaty Beirão believes people must protest even in the face of killings by the military.

For the afternoon, political prisoner Afonso Matias “Mbanza Hamza”, is happy to answer the judge’s questioning on weather there is a dictator in Angola or not. “Yes, there is”, he answers. The judge asks whom, and the defendant replies “President José Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for 36 years.”

His hearing continues on Friday. There are 12 more defendants to go. A week has passed by.

Meanwhile, the court has  arranged to change the chairs for the judge, his assistants and the public prosecution. More comfortable, luxury chairs have been brought in for them. The changes have also been extended to the defendants’ wooden  benches with backrests. They have been replaced with benches without backrests, so the defendants can spend the whole day either standing or seating uncomfortably.

The Media Trickery

Last Friday, there was a formal announcement that journalists would finally be able to cover the trial, live, from an adjacent room to the courtroom. This journalist believing in the announcement, went there  only to hear from the head of the police protocol attached to the trial, that “we have superior orders” to only allow journalists with special accreditation for the trial”. Who is issuing the “superior orders”, who issues the accreditations?  These questions are left unanswered. The two most powerful decision makers in the country are president Dos Santos and now the ghostly “Superior Orders”. The latter takes responsibility for everything the powers that be do not want to answer for.  But, if one insists on knowing who this “Superior Orders” is, then an anthropological observation ensues: The foot soldiers will answer with a simple: “Them”. Who are they? “Them”, as opposed to “Us”, the foot soldiers and the people who are not part of “Them”.