The barring of family members, the media, diplomatic representatives, independent observers and the general public has turned the trial of 17 activists into a kangaroo court and thrown the independence of the Angolan judiciary into question, said Amnesty International today as their trial entered its fourth week.
The trial of the 17 activists, 15 of whom were arrested and detained after attending a meeting in Luanda in June to discuss politics and governance concerns has breached numerous fair trial standards recognized under international law. Many observers were not permitted to enter the courtroom, whilst those who were allowed in were denied water, toilet breaks and had to stand for long periods.
“The right to a public hearing is a basic safeguard for a fair trial and barring several trial observers from the courtroom without justification is in breach of international human rights law,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa.
“These activists, held for over five months on trumped up charges, have not only been unjustly detained, but have also found themselves before a kangaroo court in which the principles of law and justice are being disregarded.”
The trial has been an arduous process with only eight of the 17 hearings so far having been heard. Bizarrely, the court spent days reading out almost 200 pages of an unpublished book written by one of the defendants, Domingos da Cruz. The book, Tools to Destroy a Dictatorship and Avoiding a New Dictatorship – Political Philosophy for the Liberation of Angola, describes mechanisms of peaceful resistance. The Angolan authorities have a duty to conduct the proceedings without undue delay.
Amnesty International has been calling for the trial to be abandoned and for all the activists to be immediately and unconditionally released, as they have been solely detained for their peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The organisation considers them to be prisoners of conscience and believes that they should not have been detained in the first place.
The right of trial observers and others to “attend public hearings, proceedings and trials” is not only expressly included in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, but also in the Principles on Fair Trial in Africa. The right to a public hearing, which includes allowing trial observers, is an important component of the right to a fair trial, protected under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Angola is a State party.
“This trial presented an opportunity for the Angolan judiciary to demonstrate its independence and put an end to this injustice by throwing the case out of court,” said Muleya Mwananyanda.
“Sadly they have failed to do this and instead they have compounded the ongoing human rights violations committed against these peaceful activists who should not have been imprisoned at all.”
The trial of the 17 activists began on 16 November 2015.
They were charged with preparing a “rebellion” and “plotting against the president” on 16 September 2015.
Angolan security forces arrested and detained 15 of them between 20 and 24 June 2015 in Luanda. The arrests came after they had attended a meeting to discuss politics and governance concerns in the country.
Each charge carries a maximum penalty of up to three years in jail or a corresponding fine. They were charged along with two others who were not detained.
The defence lawyers presented a complaint in court for bodily harm against two of their clients who claimed to have been beaten by police officers in a private room of the court premises. The authorities have failed to open an investigation into these allegations of torture or other ill-treatment.
When analysing a similar case, the Human Rights Committee found violations of the right to a fair public trial in which the trial took place in a small courtroom, unable to accommodate the interested public (HRC: Marinich v Belarus, UN Doc. CCPR/C/99/D/1502/2006 (2010) §10.5).
On 7 December, 14 of the activists on trial co-signed an open letter to President José Eduardo dos Santos affirming that if the hearings are not finalised by the end of this week, they will not only refuse to go to court, but also start a collective hunger strike.