4 April 2012

Police crush anti-government critics

An Angolan rights group, Omunga, has launched a campaign for the right to protest amid a state crackdown on anti-government demonstrations
An Angolan rights group, Omunga, has launched a campaign for the right to protest amid a state crackdown on anti-government demonstrations

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Angola has been gearing up for its 10-year anniversary of peace on 4 April by cracking down on anti-government critics and arresting protesters. This year alone, the authorities have put down five anti-government rallies and arrested at least 46 protesters, says a new report by Human Rights Watch.

Uniformed police, in apparent coordination with armed police in civilian clothes and other security agents, have violently attacked anti-government protesters "for creating instability." Human Rights Watch says it's the government's attempt to curb a budding protest movement promoted by youth groups since March 2011.

Protests on 10 March turned out particularly nasty.

Groups demonstrating in Cazenga against the recent appointment of a ruling party member as the head of the national electoral commission were met with a dozen police in plainclothes and armed with wood and metal clubs, knives and pistols. At least three protesters were injured. Some protesters and journalists sought refuge in nearby residences to escape the violence.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the police agents at the site withdrew when the armed police in civilian clothes arrived, and did not intervene against their assaults, despite calls for help.

Three men at a similar demonstration in Benguela were arrested and sentenced to 45 days in jail on charges of disobedience and aggression against police. They were later released on bail.

Many demonstrators told Human Rights Watch that they have received anonymous phone calls threatening them and their families, and been followed by people in cars. Some said they filed complaints, but police did not tell them whether an investigation had taken place.

According to Human Rights Watch, official investigations have not resulted in prosecutions of attackers - even those identified by demonstrators and eyewitnesses. Interior Minister Sebastião Martins recently denied any police involvement in the violence.

Meanwhile, state television aired threats by anonymous groups that claimed they were defending the peace against anti-government protesters, said Human Rights Watch.

Over the past year, IFEX members have reported extensively on unnecessary or excessive use of force by police at antigovernment protests like the 10 March event, and threats, intimidation and arbitrary arrests of journalists and political activists at the hands of police and other security agents in Angola.

In an incident aimed directly at the independent media, more than a dozen police raided the weekly "Folha 8" on 12 March and confiscated all of its computers - effectively crippling the operations of one of the country's two remaining independent publications, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The raid was conducted in connection with an investigation into the publication of a satirical photo montage that ridiculed the President and other members of the executive.

"Folha 8" has reported on government corruption and has also covered the recent anti-government protests challenging President José Eduardo dos Santos's 32 years of rule, according to CPJ.

"The Angolan government should respect people's fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and free speech rather than punishing critics and the political opposition," Human Rights Watch said. "The repressive actions of the government do not bode well for peaceful parliamentary elections." Elections are scheduled for 5 September, only the third since gaining independence from Portugal in 1975.

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