Angolan Injustice: The Case of the ‘Kidnapped’ Pastor

The reported kidnap of an elderly pastor belonging to the Church of Seventh Day Adventists in Angola made for sensational headlines. Pastor Daniel Cem alleged church leaders had ordered his abduction in November 2015 and claimed his family had to pay a ransom of 30 million Kwanzas (US $220,000 at the time) to secure his release.

Pastor Cem named the Adventist Church’s regional Executive Secretary as having organized the kidnap. He then accused the President and Chief Financial Officer of defamation for passing around the church hierarchy an anonymous letter purporting to confess that the kidnap was staged by Cem’s own family to extort money from the church.

After a controversial trial in December 2017, six members of the Adventist church, including the three northern region leaders, were found guilty and sentenced to between one and five years in prison. They have been bailed, pending appeal, but are confined to Luanda.

The ‘Victim’

Daniel Cem was a respected pastor in the Church of Seventh Day Adventists in Angola when in December 2010 the Southern African division of the Church opened a second regional headquarters in Luanda and selected two experienced and trusted administrators to run it.

Pastor Passmore Hachalinga, a Zambian national was directed to serve as regional President with Pastor Burns Sibanda, a Zimbabwean, as Chief Financial Officer – experienced men of impeccable reputation with decades of service. An Angolan, Teixeira Mateus Vinte, was appointed alongside them as Executive Secretary of the new Adventist Northern Region. The three men were to supervise the church’s work across 10 of the country’s 18 provinces. They set up two sub-offices, one for the Northeast and the other for the North and oversaw the election of local pastors to run them.

Pastor Cem was elected to run the North Office. Gradually, disturbing complaints about his leadership began to reach the senior administrators. A first official financial audit in 2014 revealed the pastor had failed to comply with the church’s operating procedures and financial controls. He was believed to have diverted funds to unapproved ends. A second audit the following year confirmed further financial mismanagement and at the Church’s September audit committee meeting it was made clear to Pastor Cem that he would not be reinstated when his term of office ended in December 2015.

Pastor Daniel Cem.

The ‘Kidnap’

At 7am on October 29, 2015 Pastor Cem’s nephew Domingos Terça Massaqui, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Angolan Armed Forces, turned up at the criminal investigation department in the Kilamba Kiaxi neighbourhood. He’d come to report that his uncle had been kidnapped by armed men and taken away in a silver-grey Toyota Tundra pick-up truck.

In fact, Pastor Cem was at the Church’s regional office that day for a finance meeting. The regional church hierarchy were deliberating whether to invest 100 million kwanzas in land for a future Adventist University. This must have been somewhat alarming to Pastor Cem as his family owned an educational institute (the Instituto Superior Politécnico Internacional de Angola – ISIA) whose Adventist student numbers and income would be threatened by the establishment of a more prestigious institution nearby. In fact the proposal was approved and the meeting broke up at 5pm.

At 7pm as Daniel Cem approached his home, neighbours saw him being bundled into a pick-up truck by armed men. The circumstances were identical to those reported by Lt Col Terça Massaqui twelve hours beforehand. Within 30 minutes, members of the Cem family had alerted the church leadership in Luanda and pastors began arriving at their home to offer support.

The following morning (Friday October 30) the Adventist regional administrators were told by the pastor’s wife that she’d received a phone call from her missing husband at 9pm the previous evening. He also spoke to fellow Adventist Garcia José Dala, who worked for Pastor Cem’s brother Carlos at the Polytechnic. Carlos had telephoned Garcia, claiming that he was in the United States, asking him to head over to Pastor Cem’s house to help the family.

Daniel Cem called back at 1am, this time to convey a demand that the church pay a ransom of 100 million kwanzas for his release. As chief financial officer, Pastor Sibanda contacted the divisional office in South Africa for advice. He was told, categorically, that in no circumstances would the church ever pay a ransom. He counselled the family to call the police but the pastor’s wife said she’d been told that Daniel would be killed if they did.

The Adventist divisional headquarters in South Africa stressed that their Angolan colleagues were to take no part in any negotiations. To support the family, they convened a day of fasting and prayer for the safe return of Daniel Cem, observed throughout the region’s Seventh Day Adventist churches the following day, their Sabbath (Saturday October 30).

Meanwhile Carlos Cem had turned up to pressure the church officials to pay the ransom. They demurred. In the early hours of Sunday November 1, Pastor Hachalinga was woken by a phone call. It was 2am and Daniel Cem was on the line. He announced that he’d negotiated a discount and begged his superior to use church funds to pay the now-reduced 30-million-kwanza ransom. When Pastor Hachalinga said he was prohibited from doing so, he hung up.

Nonetheless, by Monday November 2, Daniel Cem was back at the family home. Apparently, in spite of it being a bank holiday weekend, his family had got hold of 30 million kwanzas to pay the kidnappers.

Bizarre and inconsistent statements

Daniel Cem’s statement to police the following day was quite remarkable. Interviewed by Superintendent Nelson Monteiro, he accused the church’s executive secretary, Teixeira Mateus Vinte, of organizing the kidnap. And he named his co-religionists Adão Hebo, João Sonhi and Garcia José Dala as being involved. He said they had planned to kill him on his doorstep. Instead, he’d been taken to Benguela and held in a small, smelly bathroom. At trial, he subsequently changed this statement to say he’d been held at the house of one of his abductors, locked into a closet with children’s toys

Meanwhile Detective Nelito Sucama discovered that special agents from the Criminal Investigation Service (SIC) had witnessed the handover of the ransom. Apparently, they had an unobstructed view as a silver-grey Toyota Tundra drove up to make the exchange. Yet the SIC agents failed to apprehend the suspects. Their excuse was that the Toyota Tundra outran their Hyundai Elantra.

There were numerous anomalies in the statements given by members of the Cem family and the SIC agents. The Cem family said the ransom handover was at 9pm on November 1; the SIC agents said it was 11pm. Daniel Cem said his wife had handed over a sack of money to the kidnappers behind some large garbage containers (implying out of sight of the street). He said the kidnappers then drove off a few hundred metres, before stopping to release him. Once free, he called his wife who was sitting with the SIC agents in their car.

The suspect vehicle matched the description and license plate number given to police by Lt Col Massaqui twelve hours before the actual kidnap. Fatally for an Adventist parishioner named João Alfredo Dala (no relation to Garcia José Dala), these details matched his pick-up truck.

João Dala had six witnesses to the fact that he was with his daughter a long way from Luanda (in Luvo on the border of the northwestern province of Zaire) on the day of the kidnap. His truck details were enough to get him arrested and tortured to extract a bloodstained confession, which he later retracted.

On November 3, Daniel Cem made an extraordinary statement to the SIC investigating officers in the presence of their commander, Chief Superintendent Pedro Lufungula. He said that his kidnappers had given him 10 million kwanzas. He gave a convoluted and barely credible explanation – that in exchange for receiving the ransom payment in Angolan kwanzas, they would compensate him. He said they even gave him the 10 million on November 1 shortly before driving him to pick up the 30 million ransom from his wife. Incredible though it may seem, these details were transcribed into his written statement and duly signed as having taken place on November 2.

The Anonymous Letter

At the church service on Saturday November 28, a parishioner pressed a sealed envelope into Pastor Sibanda’s hands. It contained an anonymous letter, purporting to be from a member of Daniel Cem’s family, confessing that the kidnap was a sham aimed at extorting money from the church. Pastor Sibanda shared the letter with his senior colleagues and they decided to show it to Daniel Cem to see what he made of it. He said it was a fake. The church leaders asked him if they should hand it to the police and he agreed they should.

The church leaders were notified on December 1 to present themselves at the SIC station for questioning on December 2. They did. But due to a power cut they were told to come back the following day. Pastor Sibanda made a statement on December 3.

On December 6 during a funeral service, Daniel Cem told Pastor Sibanda that the police had made two arrests. One of these was João Alfredo Dala, whose 15-hour interrogation was filmed on a cellphone by one of those present. The pictures are gruesome. They show him being hit on the head with a type of machete called a catana, bleeding profusely. Amongst various forms of extreme violence, they pulled out his big toe nail, mutilated his genitals and left him severely injured and permanently scarred. He was coerced into making a statement incriminating the Adventist northern region administrators.

João Dala under torture.

Pastor Passmore Hachalinga then faced a two-day interrogation by investigating officers in the presence of Chief Superintendent Pedro Lufungula, the head of SIC’s organised crime squad, and Domingos Mário who worked with Interpol. His statement was also entered into the record.

Asked by the investigating officer if he thought the kidnap was fake, Pastor Hachalinga said he couldn’t know for sure but the circumstances raised questions that needed clarification: for example how the family had managed to get hold of 30 million kwanzas during a bank holiday weekend when the banks were closed the entire time.

He also found it strange that plain clothes officers were in the vicinity to help with the handover of the money – yet had failed to intervene and arrest the kidnappers. And why didn’t the officers question Daniel Cem straight away?

Daniel Cem was re-examined on January 21, 2016. Once again, he affirmed that he had been released on November 2, contradicting the version of the SIC agents present for the handover.

Months went by. Then in April, the church leaders were given official notification that they were suspects in the kidnapping of Daniel Cem and of defamation for having produced and circulated the anonymous letter. Nothing further happened until October 2016 when they were called into the SIC office for a pre-trial conference with the public prosecutor. As both sides went through the evidence, the anomalies suggested the accusations against them had been thoroughly discredited.

Meanwhile Daniel Cem’s term of office as chief of the northern sub-office had expired but the Church felt he could not be reassigned to pastoral duties until the police investigation was officially closed, so he remained on paid leave with full benefits. It appeared the investigation had stalled.

Case reopened

Unexpectedly, in April 2017 the case was reopened. Five people faced kidnapping charges; Pastor Hachalinga and Pastor Sibanda faced charges of defamation. They remained free with no restrictions pending trial.

The defendants were notified to attend a hearing at the Criminal Division of Luanda’s 13 Provincial Court on Friday August 25. On arrival, they were told they were under arrest. They were forced to sign documents before they or their lawyers were given any chance to read them and then, to their horror, the clerics found themselves thrown into a prison van and transferred directly to Viana, where they were humiliatingly strip-searched and placed in cells.

The arrest warrant mystifyingly claimed they were being remanded in custody on a murder charge. Nothing could be done until after the weekend when their lawyers secured their release.

The trial opened on September 29, 2017, was adjourned to October 17 and continued in session for just over two months. The accused had already faced trial by media, fuelled by accusations and inflammatory statements from family members and associates of Pastor Cem, who throughout was presented as an innocent victim.

The trial was a farce. At one stage, the alleged kidnap victim was asked to bring a case containing 30 million kwanzas in cash to court, to show that Daniel Cem’s wife would have been capable of carrying such an amount on her own. The case was then taken to the judge’s chambers “for safe-keeping” and witnesses later saw it being transferred from the judge’s chambers to his car. As for the supposed 30 million kwanzas that had allegedly been handed to the kidnappers, there was no trace.

At various points, Judge João António Francisco showed bias e.g. adducing without having heard it in testimony that Cem would have been able to hear children playing from his place of confinement in a closet. He refused to accept evidence of the torture of João Alfredo Dala, who showed his scars in court and claimed that Daniel Cem had conspired with SIC Operations Chief Fernando Receado and Provincial Assistant Director Ngola Kina to coerce a false confession from him and had been present and participated in the violence he suffered.

After all the evidence and testimony had been presented, the public prosecutor admitted it was insufficient to convict and called on the judge to acquit. That seemed to inflame Judge João António Francisco who called a recess until the sentencing hearing, set for December 29, saying “they would see who was the boss of this court”.

No travel restrictions were placed on the defendants in the interim and Pastor Sibanda travelled to his native Zimbabwe for Christmas, returning to Angola on December 27, in good time for the hearing. When Pastor Sibanda and Pastor Hachalinga arrived in court with their lawyers, they were astonished to be re-arrested, allegedly on the grounds that they had “tried to flee the country” even though they were clearly present.

They then sat stupefied as the Judge pronounced them all guilty and passed sentences of between one and five years in prison. Judge João António Francisco also ordered their Church to pay the Cem family 45 million kwanzas – 30 million in ‘restitution’ for the ransom they claimed to have paid and a further 15 million in damages for having defamed him.

From left to right: João Alfredo Dala, Teixeira Vinte, Garcia Dala, Passmore Hachalinga e Burns Sibanda

Miscarriage of Justice

The church’s executive secretary, Teixeira Mateus Vinte was found guilty on two charges: of defamation and of ordering the kidnap and was sentenced to five years. Pastor Adão Hebo and two parishioners, the truck-owner João Alfredo Dala and Polytechnic employee Garcia José Dala (no relation) were also found guilty of planning the abduction and were sentenced to four years. Adventist President Passmore Hachalinga and Chief Financial Officer Burns Sibanda were found guilty of defamation and sentenced to three years.

They were taken straight from the courthouse back to Viana prison.

The defence lawyers launched immediate appeals. They made official complaints about the conduct of Judge João António Francisco, for failing to follow procedure both during and after the trial. He had also refused to issue a written copy of his judgement and was obstructing process at every turn.

The Supreme Court of Angola heard the ‘habeas corpus’ plea on January 3, 2018 and ruled on February 15 that the arrests and continued detention were unlawful. The defendants should be released on bail, pending their appeals. The 13th Court took its time in complying with the Supreme Court decision. Although they should never have been sent there in the first place, the Adventists remained incarcerated for 62 days.

The squalid and gruelling conditions in Viana were particularly trying for the elderly President and Chief Financial Officer of the Adventist Church, both over 60. Pastor Sibanda is also battling prostate cancer for which he was denied treatment. Meanwhile, the injuries sustained by João Alfredo Dala were so grave that although admitted to hospital for surgery, he did not survive. He protested his innocence right up to his death in September 2018. He left a statement naming the police officers and SIC agents who had invaded his home without a warrant, tied up all nine family members including young children and stolen a large sum of money from him before taking him to the 48th Police Station where he was so viciously assaulted.

Photographs, witness statements and documentary evidence supplied to Maka Angola support the accusation that Pastor Daniel Cem conspired with family members to stage his own kidnap. As stated in the infamous ‘anonymous letter’, the 60-year-old Pastor had both financial and other motives for the elaborate scam:

Status: Cem had failed to secure a more senior position in the church hierarchy and was on the verge of being demoted. He hoped the sympathy generated over his ‘ordeal’ might persuade fellow church elders to re-elect him for the position he was about to lose or even to substitute one of his superiors;

Revenge: Cem wanted to cause trouble for the church leaders who had ‘ruined’ him by revealing his mismanagement of church funds.

Money: The church leadership who had spurned him were planning to invest in land for an Adventist university, which he believed would draw Adventist students and income away from the polytechnic owned and run by the Cem family. If the church were to ‘lose’ the sum of 100 million kwanzas (US $735,000 at the time) set aside for the land purchase, it would delay or cancel that project; Cem also feared that demotion back to pastoral work would reduce his income just as he approached retirement age.

When their administrators were accused by Daniel Cem, the Adventist Church hierarchy in South Africa believed they should let the Angolan justice system run its course, expecting that the ridiculous accusations against their senior churchmen would be seen to be baseless. That expectation was sadly dashed.

The Supreme Court has been dragging its feet on the case. Moreover, for a year the Supreme Council of magistrates has ignored complaints by the defendant’s lawyers regarding Judge Joao Antonio Francisco. The defense has filed on the judge’s crude bias and the fact that he had held on to the case file to prevent its timely review by the Supreme Court. Justice in Angola remains unjust.