Johannesburg — The Angolan government should immediately end arbitrary arrests and assaults against peaceful protesters and journalists, Human Rights Watch said today. All those held for exercising their rights to assembly and expression should be released unless they are promptly charged with a credible criminal offense.
On September 19, 2013, police arrested 22 protesters who sought to demonstrate near Independence Square in Luanda and hand out leaflets calling for social justice. Two released that day were quoted in local media alleging that they were beaten and otherwise mistreated in custody. On September 20, three journalists who sought to interview some newly freed protesters were themselves arrested, threatened, and beaten by the police.
"The arrests and assaults on peaceful protesters and journalists are a heavy-handed attempt to silence people who have every right to express their views," said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Angola's government should swiftly reverse course, free those wrongly jailed, and investigate the police officers responsible."
A youth group known as the Angolan Revolutionary Movement said it had formally informed the authorities, in accordance with the law, in advance of the planned protest on September 19.
The protest sought to highlight concerns over corruption, social justice, police violence against street traders, forced evictions, and the enforced disappearance of two protest organizers in 2012. A police spokesman publicly warned on September 18 that the protest would be met with force. Witnesses in Luanda said that there was a heavy deployment of law enforcement the next day, including helicopters, military police, and units with dogs.
Ten of the 22 protesters arrested on September 19 were released without charge the same day. Another eight were released by court order on September 20, along with a detained member of the opposition Bloco Democratico party.
Rapid intervention police arrested three journalists - Rafael Marques, a prominent human rights defender who founded the anticorruption blogMaka Angola; Alexandre Neto, president of the Southern Africa Media Institute in Angola; and Coque Mukuta, a correspondent for Voice of America - while they were interviewing the eight freed protesters.
The three journalists told Human Rights Watch that they were conducting the interviews on the street about three hundred meters away from the court when approximately forty heavily armed rapid intervention police officers arrived in five cars with sirens, including two armored vehicles. They arrested the three journalists, seven of the just-released protesters, and a businessman who had being filming the incident from a nearby office building. All were taken to a rapid intervention police command center.
The journalists and the businessman told Human Rights Watch that the physical abuse began once they arrived at the command center. They said a high-ranking officer ordered all 11 detainees to lie down in a police van with their faces on the floor.
"There was no space on the floor for all of us," Neto told Human Rights Watch. "We had to lie over each other. One of us has asthma and had difficulties breathing.
Then a high-ranking official and others came in, walked over us with their boots, vests, and heavy equipment, jumped over us and kicked us."
The journalists said that the police officers threatened to kill them, shouting "You give us a lot of work. You deserve to be shot. You will die today."
Marques complained that he was beaten in his neck with an unknown object and still feels pain. He had been asked to remove his glasses beforehand. A policewoman filmed the events.
The mistreatment of the journalists was a clear attempt to intimidate the media, Human Rights Watch said.
"They knew exactly who we were," Marques told Human Rights Watch. "Police officers registered our names several times."
More than four hours later, the three journalists and the businessman were transferred to the criminal investigation police and released without charge. Their camera equipment was returned with the lenses destroyed. The seven protesters remain in custody, despite the earlier court order for their release, and still face trial, though they have not been charged.
A 17-year-old organizer of the September 19 protest, Manuel Chivonde Nito Alves, had been arrested on September 12 for distributing t-shirts calling Angola's longtime president, José Eduardo dos Santos, a "nasty dictator." He remains in custody and has yet to be charged with any crime.
"The brutal treatment of these journalists and protesters in flagrant disregard of a court order shows calculated contempt for the rule of law," Lefkow said. "The Angolan government needs to prosecute all the police responsible for these abuses and show Angolans that police are not above the law."
Since 2011, inspired by popular uprisings in the Middle East, a small, peaceful movement of Angolan activist groups has sought to protest corruption, restrictions on free speech and other rights, and rising inequality in the oil-rich country.
Angolan police and security agents have repeatedly disrupted peaceful protestsorganized by different groups, including youths and war veterans. Police regularly use unnecessary or excessive force and arbitrarily detain protesters.
The state media have staged a campaign calling any antigovernment protest an attempt to "wage war." In a country at peace for the first time in the last decade, such campaigns have raised fear among the population.Journalists and other observerswho seek to document the protests and the government's response have been regularly harassed, detained, and sometimes mistreated.