The Truly Guilty Will Not Rest Easy

It’s not easy to find sleep when your thoughts are filled with the plight of 17 colleagues. By daring to explore ways of expressing dissent – in what is supposed to be a democracy – they  are persecuted, beaten, deprived of their liberty, subjected to a kangaroo court, convicted on the most spurious evidence by puppet judges, and then sentenced to long prison terms in unsanitary conditions where they will be denied their most basic human rights, including medical attention.

Will Judge Januário Domingos sleep easy tonight?  Will Prosecutor Isabel Fançony Nicolau?  Do they know or care that their reputations will now forever be sullied by the infamy of their roles in a tawdry show trial? Isabel was apparently so embarrassed by having to play the part of prosecuting attorney that she adopted a disguise (a face-obscuring wig, glasses and exaggerated cosmetics) during the trial.

This dastardly duo has previous form. Amongst the cases they have mishandled over the years, was the SME (Migration and Foreign Service) trial, dismantled on appeal thanks to their ineptitude. Then as now, it was common knowledge that they were following “superior orders” rather than due process according to the law.

According to Club-K Angola last year, Isabel was ‘running the risk of being seen by her children and family members as a woman who takes orders to use the law to neuter political adversaries and critics of the mistaken policies of the MPLA regime’.   Seriously?  As if she had done anything to counter that impression? Prosecutor and judge alike are not the only pawns of a regime that pretends to be democratic while using totalitarian methods to keep people in line.

International human rights organizations do extensive research before making pronouncements like this one from Amnesty International: “An Angolan court’s decision sentencing 17 activists to up to 8 1/2 years in prison for discussing peaceful protest is outrageous.  A prompt and impartial review by an Appeals Court is needed. Peaceful criticism of the government, whether in a book group or out on the streets, is not a crime.”

On its home page, Human Rights Watch sums up what “everyone knows” about Angola: “President José Eduardo dos Santos, in power for more than three decades, has faced increasing criticism in Angola for corruption in his government, mismanagement of public funds, and repression of critics, despite several pledges to improve human rights record. After winning the 2012 elections with a large majority, the ruling party Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola continued to use repressive measures, restricting freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Many journalists and activists are target (sic) with criminal defamation lawsuits, unfair trials, and intimidation, and the police often use excessive force and engage in arbitrary arrests to stop peaceful anti-government protests.”

As one of the 17 defendants, Luaty Beirão, said before the trial began: “Whatever happens will be what (President) Jose Eduardo decides. This is a show trial, everyone knows that and understands how it works. No matter what arguments are presented at this puppet show, and however difficult it might be to prove anything, if he decides it, we will be found guilty. And we are mentally prepared to be found guilty.”

There’s little doubt that the verdict and sentences delivered what Angola’s President required. In September this year, José Eduardo dos Santos will have held power for a staggering 37 years. That is longer than most Angolans have lived.  They have known no other government, in war or peace. Their parents (or grandparents, if still alive) might remember the pre-1974 Portuguese colonial rule with its indignities, unfairness and much-feared secret police. The MPLA – the Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola – was supposed to be their saviour, to bring independence, dignity and a better standard of living for all Angolans.

Don’t underestimate the courage it takes to stand up to a dictatorship. Compliance is rewarded, opposition severely punished.  Already one of the 17, Nito Alves, is severely ill after being thrown back in jail during the latter part of his trial for contempt of court.   There are fears too for the health of Nuno Álvaro Dala, who has been on hunger strike for 20 days.  To the regime they were a nuisance to be sidelined and silenced.  Instead they will now be lauded as heroes. Can President dos Santos risk their becoming martyrs whose renown will eclipse his own reputation?

As one social media commentator wrote: “Nothing stops people thinking you’re a despot more than putting people in prison for years for a book reading”.