Angola’s Human Rights Crisis: the Abuse of Preventative Detention

Last October, I wrote an article for the Portuguese weekly newspaper Expresso on the ineffectiveness of the presidential pardon system, in which I argued that inhumane treatment is an integral element of Angola’s overloaded Justice system.

At that time, the Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos, had decreed pardons to prisoners who had served half of their sentences (provided those sentences did not exceed a maximum of 12 years).  Government news releases hailed the move with the headline:  “Thousands of prisoners are set free thanks to the presidential pardon”.

Yet while convicted felons benefited, the presidential pardons had no effect on detainees held for years without trial in what Angola calls “preventative detention”.

I quoted several cases:  that of João Domingos da Rocha, a 26 year-old who had spent seven years in preventative detention on suspicion of the theft of second hand clothes; of Justino Longia, also detained for five years awaiting trial for the suspected theft second hand clothes.   I further mentioned the case of Bernardo Umba Samuel, a 30 year-old who was in his fifth year of preventative detention for the suspected theft of 300 Euros.   All three were being held at Luanda’s Central Penitentiary (CCL).

Immediately after the article appeared, an unidentified person (but clearly someone of high importance) ordered that the facts concerning these detainees be verified.  Subsequently on December 22 all were set free, along with a fourth detainee, José Ventura, who had not been mentioned in the Expresso article.  Ventura was ordered to be held in preventative detention on June 1, 2008 on suspicion of the theft of steel rods used for construction. He had been transferred to the São Paulo Prison Hospital on November 11 (Angola’s Independence Day), suffering from a lung infection.

The release of these four men on December 22 may be interpreted as the action of a regime attempting to limit potential international embarrassment.   In my experience such arbitrary decisions are rarely the result of due process. I have noted a widespread unease over taking any actions that could be described as “humane”.  Further, the number of suspects held in preventative detention in Angola is a clear indicator that deprivation of freedom is used routinely and arbitrarily by the National Police and Office of the Attorney General of the Republic.

Let’s examine some case studies:

•    Praia Eduardo, a 26 year-old now in his fifth year of preventative detention on suspicion of the theft of a mobile phone.  If he had been tried, found guilty and sentenced, he would already be a free man.
•    Zinga Afonso Diandanda, another 26 year-old, accused of the theft of a motorcycle.  Although payment for the motorcylce was paid to the alleged victim by Diandanda’s relatives, he remains in the Luanda Central Penitentiary, four years later.  “I have never even been questioned by the public prosecutor”, he says.
•    Even more ridiculous is the case of 25 year-old João Manuel António, who was caught defecating on a residential construction site in Viana.  The owner of the site, having caught him in the act, further accused him of being a thief. He has since been held for three years and seven months.  In that period he has been questioned only once, by a police officer of the Kapalanca Police Station in Viana.  And yet he is still being held in the CCL, apparently forgotten.
•    João Caliata, aged 44, has an even more bizarre story to tell.  Upon her sister’s return to Huila, his province of origin, he went with a friend to her rented house in Boavista to fetch some belongings, including a butane gas canister.  It was around 4 p.m. when he crossed paths with two policemen, who immediately accused him of being a thief and beat him and his friend at the scene.  He has been held in preventative detention for the past four years.  “I was questioned by the public prosecutor in the Ingombota II Police Division, but was told nothing”, he says.  He has little or no family support because his relatives all live in the province of Huila, thousands of miles from Luanda.

Even worse, the excessive numbers of what you might term “chicken thieves” in preventative detention has caused severe overcrowding in Luanda’s jails and the ensuing multitude of consequences that fit the definition of serious violations of human rights.

In the past couple of weeks, Viana prison transferred to the CCL a further 50 detainees, as it had run out of space.  Of those 50, ten were then sent on to Cell No. 12 which was already holding 79 detainees.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one prison guard there gave an account of the men’s condition:  “They arrived here looking skeletal, harbouring numerous infections, such as scabies.  Several of them had blood in their urine.  The situation was so critical that six of them had to be transferred directly to the infirmary.”   He went on: “Many of those who come to us from Viana are not even able to stand unaided, they are so malnourished.”

This is not a novel situation.  During my own sojourn in Viana Prison in 1999, when I was detained for having referred to the comrade president as a “dictator”, I was confronted with what the detainees call the “Jews’ Cell”.  This is the cell where those prisoners who are skeletal and unable to stand are all placed together to make it easier for the prison services to treat them.  There are deaths every other day.

Has anything changed in the intervening 16 years?

Take a look at Block A of Cell 4 – Viana Penitentiary’s best cell, reserved for detainees from the military, police or similar.  The cell is designed to hold a maximum of 20 people yet currently has 65 detainees.  Due to the lack of space it is common for two people to sleep on the bathroom floor.

Lack of water leading to poor hygiene amongst the detainees is another factor in the spread of infection.  According to one police officer detained there:  “The prison gives us a maximum of five litres of water each, twice a month, that we must use for drinking, washing ourselves and our clothes.  The situation is critical – only God keeps us alive here.”

Back in 2000, the Office of the Attorney General created what it called a “mobile brigade” of public prosecutors sent to Viana Prison to correct an over-abundance of arbitrary detention.  More than a thousand detainees were sent home then.

With so many egregious cases of arbitrary detention clogging up the system, a repeat of this initiative is long overdue.