The Unfair Trial and the Unjust Minister

In the face of what is turning out to be the trial that is defining the true nature of the Angolan state, the Minister of Justice, Rui Mangueira, and his colleagues went on a spirited international public relations offensive. His main argument was that by citing the country’s recurring human rights abuses, ill-intentioned people were defaming Angola’s good name abroad.

In Angola, the trial of young activists accused of preparing a rebellion and an attempt on the president’s life has been going on for the last three weeks.  Someone in the Angolan government seems bent on permanently staining its good name. The accused have been treated so poorly that they are suggesting they may go on a collective hunger strike if their trial is drawn out. Of the 17 accused, only nine have been heard so far in the 15 daily sessions. The activists have certainly not turned out to be the criminals suggested in the state media; in fact, they have turned out to be thoughtful and quite idealistic.

Let us, however, turn to Minister Mangueira’s diplomatic pilgrimage. To a certain extent, the Angolan regime is extremely sensitive about how the United States views it – and what kind of diplomatic discourse defines their relationship. Thus, the main goal of the offensive consisted in neutralizing any critical and public position by the Obama administration on human rights in Angola. International legitimacy and endorsements, as well as diplomatic silence, have become the staple for the regime to renew its credentials of impunity at home. In Angola, it has historically been the case that in internal disputes the winning side has always been the party that commanded international support regardless of its actions. This is what has shaped politics and the attendant public opinion in the country.

The minister insisted that Angola had functional institutions  – and that the trial of the political activists charged with preparing for a rebellion and to assassinate President Dos Santos, would not only show the independence and health of the judiciary, but would prove that the country is able to hold a fair trial. Justice would be served according to his claims.

First, there is a point that needs to be made loud and clear. Minister Rui Mangueira and his cohort never explained to their foreign audiences why the state media remains an extension of the authoritarian ruling MPLA and of the presidency. The state media, when not engaged in reporting a fantasyland for the regime, is often used in smear campaigns against critical voices to convey public threats to them, as well as stir up fear and hatred. It serves exclusively as a propaganda mouthpiece.

Had the state media, which comprises the outlets with nationwide reach, been plural, the minister would not have had the need to counter the narrative of a few pesky Angolan activists who make themselves heard abroad. The issues would have been addressed within Angola through public debate and dialogue among all parties concerned

Three weeks into the trial, we should, once again, turn to the checklist. Is the trial fair?  There are technical aspects that ought perhaps to be left to the experts. But it is befuddling to learn about the evidence presented in court over the last three weeks to prove that the youths indeed plotted a rebellion and intended to kill the president: There is a mention that the youths would burn tires in the presidential palace to smoke the president out; a video clip showing two defendants discussing non-violent methods if the police eventually fired at protesters; and perhaps the most ridiculous piece of evidence is a white board with hardly readable initials of the president’s name, JES, as evidence of their attempt to assassinate him. The judge himself entered his own evidence against one of the defendants in the form of a Youtube video he watched.

The evidence presented in court so far showcases the absurdity of the regime, and how it has hollowed out the judicial system to make its point: It rules with impunity.

In any case, even in a kangaroo court, the defense team and relatives of the accused, as well as other concerned parties, would have easy access to the proceedings, for those in power would already have handed down the verdict.  The idea is that justice would not only be on display, but would be seen being put on display.

The current trial in Luanda is being held in a small hall – something with the dimensions of an average classroom. We are talking about a country that in the past has had trials in cinema halls. Last year, for instance, the Moxico Provincial Court moved the trial of a municipal ruling MPLA leader to a conference hall sitting 200 people to accommodate the public interest in the case. The defendant and a number of accomplices had been charged of murdering a paramount chief (soba) as a result of a combined dispute over the chieftainship, a love triangle, ethnic conflict and witchcraft accusations. The regime might have believed it was entertaining the people, and that it could take political dividends from the case. The conference hall was opened to the public on a first come first served basis throughout the nine sessions.

Now, here in Luanda, each of the accused is entitled to two relatives only. These have to leave their personal belongings at the entrance with the police. By way of illustration, the police checked the wallet of Esperança Gonga, the wife of political prisoner Domingos da Cruz, and found a piece of paper with the writing Liberdade Já [Freedom Now] on it. The police warned her that she could be arrested for taking hostile anti-government propaganda to court. This government is definitely hostile to its own people’s freedom. Here there is no dividend to be gained with openness, but only bewilderment and scorn for the public.

The militarization of the trial  

Half of the room is filled with officers from Military Intelligence and the Security Services. These are the “bespectacled elephants in the courtroom”, posing as the unknown relatives of the defendants or “law students”. The court authorities have turned away diplomats, activists, observers and other interested members of the public.

The press was only allowed in to take pictures and images before the commencement of the proceedings and was barred thereafter. After an outcry from several outlets, journalists have now been confined to an adjacent room where they can follow the proceedings by closed-circuit television.  Journalists in that room are not allowed to have any electronic equipment with them. There is a special process of providing accreditation for them to cover the trial. State media journalists are exempted from these draconian measures. They can even take their cameras to the courtroom.

The “law students” are allowed to loom large in the court — they can take footage in the court (who is talking to whom) and are even allowed to keep wristwatches.  We are talking about very coy law students who will not talk to anyone about their studies.  The presiding judge has been allowing only the state media, and the private television station Zimbo, which belongs to the presidential inner circle, to record the proceedings. These outlets have carte blanche for propaganda.

The court’s heavily edited video evidence is set to claim that the youths have an endowment of US $100 million from “the West” to carry out their subversive plan. Always the conniving West! For the state propaganda, the West is a country. On the diplomatic front, the president’s newly appointed ambassador-at-large, António Luvualu, has already been accusing NATO, of being in league with the youths activists to invade Angola.

One can only imagine the rappers Luaty Beirão, Hitler Jessy Chiconde and José Hata “Cheik Hata”, who are among the defendants, secretly meeting with NATO generals to prepare for the invasion.  They all sing against violence.

It might be a conversation of sorts between 19-year old defendant Nito Alves who, in 2013, spent time in jail for printing 20 t-shirts calling the president a “disgusting dictator”. The author of the manual that led to all the troubles “Tools to Destroy a Dictatorship and Avoiding a New Dictatorship – Political Philosophy for the Liberation of Angola,” is the anti-war and anti-Western interference proponent Domingos Da Cruz. His meeting with the NATO commanders would be a strange alliance.

Among the defendants there is only one with a military background, Air Force Lieutenant Osvaldo Caholo. His military career is best defined by his assignment to the military basketball team.  Such expertise will be quite handy for the invaders since Angola is the supreme African champion of male basketball with 10 titles. What does one issue would have to do with the other? Well, just ask the Angolan investigators on the case. Some of them have been receiving training from Portugal and Israel, and have knowledge of forensics. It will all make sense, and fit into the bizarre narrative that has already been spun.