No-Shows Force Adjournments at the Show Trial of the Luanda Book Club
Late last year, after a torrid few weeks under the gaze of the world’s media, the trial of dissidents charged with rebellion against Angola’s MPLA government was abruptly adjourned in time for Christmas. This was seen as less a gesture of seasonal goodwill, more an attempt to shake off some increasingly uncomfortable scrutiny by the outside world.
The initial 15 defendants, known as the “Luanda Book Club”, are a group of youthful dissidents and activists who were arrested for having gathered to read and discuss Gene Sharp’s ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation”. The book is described as a blueprint for nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes. For the heinous act of reading about resistance, they were charged with conspiracy to overthrow the state. Two other human rights activists were later added to the charge sheet, though not held in detention.
After months in preventative custody, Rapper Luaty Beirão and his fellow defendants were abruptly released and placed under house arrest. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos would have allowed himself a short sigh of relief as the emissaries of the international media organisations packed up and moved on to the next global crisis.
Hence, though the trial was due to resume in January, session after session had been postponed in what has rapidly become a judicial farce. A key part of the prosecution case was the existence of a Facebook group entitled “Government of National Salvation”, a page which lawyer Albano Pedro says he invented as a joke. Of the 53 witnesses called to testify about this, just one showed up. Albano Pedro had named himself as Chair of the National Assembly in the imaginary government’s cabinet, yet he was never summoned to make a statement during the investigative part of the process. If he had been, he could have clarified the in-joke long before this went to trial.
Observers say that was precisely why he wasn’t called to make a statement. Angola’s rulers needed the red herring of a pretend alternative government in waiting to be able to lend weight to their allegation that the dissidents were plotting to overthrow the governing MPLA. By creating this imaginary enemy within, the regime could unleash its security forces to threaten and intimidate any opponents, create a climate of suspicion and fear and engage in a great deal of mud-slinging in the hope that enough might stick to lend an air of credence and authority to the show trial intended to dissuade others from any active opposition against the MPLA.
With the trial stuttering to a halt, lawyers began wondering why all but one of the 53 witnesses on the docket were proving so hard to locate. Some of them are Deputies in the National Assembly (e.g. Anibal Rocha, Mihaela Webba, Abílio Camalata Numa, Fernando Heitor and Liberty Chiaka). Others are journalists of some renown (e.g. William Tonet, Carlos Rosado de Carvalho, Reginaldo Silva, Luísa Rogério and João Paulo Ganga. Surely it couldn’t be so hard for the judge to locate such eminent people. To this day, not one of them has received any notification to appear. When Angola spends in excess of US$500 million a year on its security forces, how is it possible they cannot locate such stellar politicians as Marcelino Moco, Justino Pinto de Andrade or Alexandra Simão? The judge certainly has the address of one of the missing witnesses: Journalist Rafael Marques de Morais was tried last May in the Luanda Provincial Court (for alleged defamation over allegations of torture contained in his book on Blood Diamonds). Yet none of these people have received any notification or request to appear.
No doubt the hope was that by dragging out the process, interest would abate and memories would fade.
Angola styles itself as a democracy in spite of having a President in Jose Eduardo dos Santos who has clung to power for 36 years. The constitution supposedly guarantees democratic rights. In theory these should include the right to peaceful assembly and the right to peaceful protest. In practise, however, the MPLA still finds it hard (if not impossible) to tolerate any opposition to a party founded as a revolutionary guerrilla movement, but hardened by decades of civil war into seeing any critic as a mortal enemy, rather than a mere political opponent.