Angolan journalist Rafael Marques thought he was finally off the hook last week when a group of Angolan generals agreed to drop their libel complaint against him. But now, after a move he characterized as "double-crossing," the investigative reporter is again facing the prospect of a stint behind bars.
In his 2011 book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, Marques documented more than 100 killings and 500 incidents of torture linked to mining operations in the country's diamond-rich Lunda Norte province. The reporter alleged that military generals who owned interests in the mining ventures must have been aware of the violence, and he later filed a criminal complaint alleging that they had committed crimes against humanity.
The generals fired back at Marques by accusing him of libel, charges that could havebrought nine years in prison and a $1.2 million fine. On Thursday, with the understanding that the charges against him would be dropped, Marques agreed that there would be no further editions of the book published, and told the court it was plausible that the generals never heard about his inquiries into the brutality at the mines. Marques also said he had not personally witnessed the generals engaging in violence, but the fact the crimes actually did occur was never disputed.
The trial was adjourned and it appeared Marques was in the clear. In court documents obtained by VICE News, representatives of the generals, as well from two mining companies that had filed similar charges, stated they had no interest in further pursuing prosecution. In exchange for Marques' concessions, the generals promised to more closely monitor the situation in Lunda Norte, and to allow the reporter to continue his work.
But Angola's legal code intertwines civil and criminal penalties for alleged defamatory offenses, and the agreement to drop the charges was not official without the state's approval. Today, the prosecutor apparently decided that the criminal charges are worth pursuing in the name of the public interest, despite the plaintiffs — including some with senior government posts — agreeing to put away their own complaints. The prosecutor said he plans to seek a 30-day jail term for Marques.
In conversations with VICE News throughout the trial, Marques has referred to private negotiations, which he said led to the agreement last Thursday. He said he was floored by Monday's turnaround. In response, he threatened to make public his private conversations with members of the governments and the generals themselves, which included assurances that he had nothing to worry about.
'This is clearly an ongoing attempt to strike fear into any would-be activists.'
"This is treacherous," he told VICE News. "Anything short of my acquittal is a cause for me to expose everything."
Though human rights and free press groups were waiting the final, official outcome of the trial, Thursday's announcement indicated the case was all but closed. Amnesty International said Marques "walked out of court a free man." In a Thursday interview with VICE News, Marques was sanguine and said he believed his accusers had "learned a lesson."
"The general impression by Rafael and all human rights organizations who have been following this case was that it had ended because there had been a settlement reached between Rafael and the generals, and the generals agreed to drop the charges," Malaku Miti-Drummond, regional advocacy director at the Southern African Litigation Centre, told VICE News. "We all understood this would be the end of it, because they were the ones bringing the charges against him."
Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights who has closely followed the case, told VICE News the legal maneuvering on the part of the state was cynical, if ultimately unsurprising.
"I think this is a face-saving scheme for the generals," said Smith "This is clearly an ongoing attempt to strike fear into any would-be activists."
Angola's military elite holds a tight grip on the country, and it is unlikely the prosecution would have continued seeking a jail sentence without the approval of members of President José Eduardo dos Santos' administration, possibly including the generals themselves. Dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979, and his family members and confidants maintain massive stakes in the country's economy, from its massive oil wealth to the mining operations that were the subject of Marques' book.
Ultimately, Judge Adriano Baptista will decide the fate of the 43-year-old journalist in a trial.
Despite the renewed threat of incarceration, Marques remains defiant, asking VICE News on Monday, "Why would such important people with such responsibilities do something almost infantile to have me convicted?"