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Angola Court Releases Book Club Activists

  • Jackson Mvunganyi

FILE - Angola President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

FILE - Angola President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

Angola’s supreme court Wednesday ordered the conditional release of 16 political activists, who have been in prison for the last 3 months.

The group of young activists known as the Luanda Book Club were convicted last year of plotting to overthrow the government of President Eduardo Dos Santos. Fifteen of the activists were arrested and detained after attending a meeting in Luanda in June 2015.

At the time of their arrest, the activists said that they were meeting to discuss a book about nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes, written by American Philosopher Gene Sharp.

Their sentences ranged from prison terms of two to eight-and-a-half years. Their release came as a surprise to many political and human rights activists who have long criticized the Angolan government for its heavy handed approach to civil disobedience and freedom of expression.

Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan journalist and human rights activists whose critical coverage of the government landed him in court, said the conditional release of the group "means that the Angolan Supreme Court still has to hear their appeals.”

He said even though the group is happy to be out of jail, they are still worried for the youngest member who remains incarcerated. He was given an additional 6 months in jail for protesting their trial by calling out what he called “a Kangaroo court.”

Morais said another activist who was called as a witness during the court proceedings “also called the trial a sham and was immediately [sentenced] to eight months in jail.” Many activists complained that their trial was politically motivated and that they would not get a free and fair trial. "It is a very abusive court system, it has no regards for the laws it is supposed to uphold.” Morais said.

The release as a political move

Dos Santos is one of the longest serving presidents in the world, having been in power for almost four decades. Even though he recently told his party that he wants to leave active politics by 2018, Dos Santos is currently the only candidate fronted by his Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party.

Recently there has been mounting pressure in the country stemming from a weak economy. The fall in crude oil prices has affected the country’s revenues, leading to sweeping government spending cuts.

Angola is Africa’s second-largest oil producer. Morais said the decision by the president to appoint daughter Isabel dos Santos as the new head of the state oil company, Sonangol, “caused a major storm in the country. So basically this has been a measure that the president has taken to tamp down the mood against him…this is a move to deflate the tension.”

Morais said the case of the Luanda book club activists mobilized many people in and out of Angola and became a ‘thorn in the side of the government… and the international pressure basically helped government change course on this case.”