It is hard to believe that members of a book club can be arrested and accused of ‘criminal conspiracy’. But this is exactly what happened last year to seventeen Angolan activists, known as the Luanda Book Club. On 20 June 2015, the activists gathered at a bookshop in Luanda to read and discuss journalist and university lecturer Domingos da Cruz’s unpublished manuscript Tools to Destroy a Dictatorship and Avoiding a New Dictatorship – Political Philosophy for the Liberation of Angola. The work is inspired by Gene Sharp’s seminal book From Dictatorship to Democracy, which was also on the group’s reading list. One of the key tenets of Sharp’s analysis is that non-violent struggle has a greater chance of success than violent resistance because tyrannical regimes will inevitably have superior military power with which to suppress any armed uprisings.
The authorities claimed that the book group was plotting a coup d’état. Thirteen of the activists were arrested at the bookshop. The group included journalist and law student Sedrick de Carvalho, who was the book’s designer; university lecturer Nuno Alvaro Dala; rappers Luaty Beirão and Hitler Jessy Chiconde (also a university student); and teacher José Hata. The other activists are Manuel Chivonde (known as Nito Alves), Nelson Dibango Mendes dos Santos, Albano Evaristo Bingobingo, Fernando António Tomás, Arante Kivuvu Italiano Lopes, Afonso Matias (aka Mbanza Hanza), Benedito Jeremias and Inocêncio António de Brito. Da Cruz did not attend the meeting but was arrested the following day. Osvaldo Sérgio Correia Caholo was arrested on 24 June 2015.
For the next six months, these fifteen activists remained in prison; some were held in solitary confinement. Two other participants, Laurinda Gouveia and Rosa Conde, were subsequently investigated as well. All seventeen were formally charged on 16 September with ‘preparatory acts of rebellion’, ‘plotting against the president’ and ‘attempting against the president’s life’. Their trial started on 16 November and, according to PEN, was flawed by irregularities. Two of the activists alleged that they had been tortured and several others went on hunger strike to protest against the charges and delays in the trial. In December, the Luanda Provincial Tribunal agreed to transfer the activists to house arrest, where they remained until they were sentenced.
On 28 March 2016, the seventeen activists were sentenced to between two and eight years in prison and fined 50,000 kwanza (around $300). Da Cruz was sentenced to eight and a half years for ‘leading the criminal association’. Beirão was sentenced to five and a half years for ‘falsifying documents’. The others all received prison sentences ranging from two years to four and a half years. Nineteen-year-old Nito Alves, the youngest member of the group, was given an additional six-month prison sentence for contempt of court after protesting about the trial.
On 31 May, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the activists were ‘arrested and detained because of the exercise of their freedom of assembly, opinion and expression in violation of Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’. The Working Group called for their immediate release and recommended that they be compensated accordingly.
On 29 June, after worldwide protests marking the anniversary of their arrest, the Angolan Supreme Court decided to conditionally release da Cruz and the sixteen activists imprisoned alongside him. The court upheld a habeas corpus petition requesting that the activists be released pending a decision on their appeal to the Constitutional Court. Nito Alves was released on 5 July on order of the Constitutional Court.
The activists are not allowed to leave the country and are required to check in with the authorities every month while they wait for the result of their appeal. Following their release, the activists reportedly walked through the streets of Luanda shouting, ‘Reading is not a crime!’ PEN believes that the activists’ arrest and imprisonment were in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. It continues to call on the authorities to overturn their convictions and sentences.
Readers might like to send appeals welcoming the conditional release of writer Domingos da Cruz and the sixteen other members of the Luanda Book Club, and calling on the Angolan authorities to overturn the convictions and sentences of all seventeen activists in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Angola is a signatory.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Minister of Justice and Human Rights
His Excellency Rui Jorge Carneiro Mangueira
Ministry of Justice and Human Rights
Rua 17 Setembro, No. 32, CP 1986 Luanda
Republic of Angola
Fax: +244 222 339 914 or +244 222 330 327
His Excellency Miguel Gaspar Fernandes Neto
Embassy of Angola, 22 Dorset Street, London W1U 6QY
Fax: 020 7486 9397
Updates: On 25 May 2016, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova (LR, November 2015) was released from prison on probation. The remainder of Ismayilova’s sentence has been commuted to a three-year conditional sentence and she is subject to a travel ban and other restrictions. PEN continues to call for her full acquittal and for all restrictions against her to be lifted.
Ahmedur Rashid Tutul (LR, May 2016), the Bangladeshi publisher now living in exile after he was brutally attacked in Dhaka by machete-wielding assailants last year, received the prestigious Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award for the work done by his publishing house, Shuddhashar.