Libel charges brought by a group of generals against renowned Angola journalist Rafael Marques, who accused them of complicity in human rights abuses in the country, have been dropped, Marques confirmed Thursday.
Speaking to VICE News shortly after the trial against him in the Angolan capital of Luanda was adjourned, Marques said the generals agreed to end their quest to silence him, and did not contest the allegations of killings and torture in the country's diamond-rich Lunda Norte province, which Marques outlined in his 2011 book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola.
"I think they have learned a lesson," said Marques. "For all the publicity it's generated will help to reduce significantly the level of human rights abuses in the region."
Lunda Norte Province, a rural area along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has for years been the site of extensive diamond mining. Today, much of the extraction operations there are controlled either directly or tacitly by the ruling military elite. The management of the companies in the province, claimed Marques, were given total impunity to mistreat and even murder workers — a situation he said the generals must have been aware of.
But on Thursday, Marques agreed that there would be no further editions of the book published, and told the court he found it plausible the generals were never informed by their representatives of his inquiries into abuses in the diamond mines of Lunda Norte. In exchange, the generals agreed to monitor the human rights situation in the province, and did not dispute that more than 100 killings and 500 incidents of torture took place in the context of the mining operations.
Marques has become cause celebre among rights advocates around the world, who supported his effort, shortly after the book's release, to file criminal charges against nine generals in Luanda, several of whom occupied high-level posts in the government. Marques has for years claimed the generals, as well as board members of mining interests in the country, were complicit in both the killings in Lunda Norte and efforts to cover up the crimes.
Those crimes, noted Marques, "were never questioned throughout the whole process," adding that he will himself continue monitoring the human rights situation in the province. The generals, he said, agreed to be "supportive of the human rights monitoring in the region."
Marques said his offer to not print the book again — it has already been through 8 editions in Portugal — was a "token" gesture. The text will be available for free online.
When the court was adjourned on Thursday, Marques had to call a witness traveling from Lunda Norte to inform him he should turn around.
Given the power of Angola's military elite, the détente reached Thursday was seen as a victory by many in the human rights community and among free press groups. It also represented a marked turn of events since last week, when Marques told VICE News he was aware a verdict had been all but issued, and that he was prepared to serve time in jail.
"He is saying that in this particular instance, it is possible [the generals] may not have known what was occurring," Sarah Hager, a southern Africa specialist at Amnesty International, told VICE News. "But by ensuring the agreement allows Rafael's continued monitoring of the situation in Lunda Norte, and garnering the general's commitment to ensuring the instances he alleges in his book do not continue, in effect, the generals are acknowledging their responsibility."
Sue Valentine, Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Project Journalists, told VICE News she was "delighted that Angola has dismissed the case against Rafael and upheld the fundamental right of freedom of expression."
Marques said he was satisfied with the trial's outcome, but that the proceedings, and cost of defending himself, had left him flat broke.
The case against Marques has shed unwanted international attention on the former Portuguese colony, which only emerged from a nearly three-decade civil war in 2002. Angola's president, José Eduardo dos Santos, has ruled the country since 1979, and his party, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), maintains a tight grip on its massive oil and mineral wealth. Recent years have seen extensive development in Luanda, but the country's oil largesse has not trickled down to the average Angolan, who still lives on less than $2 per day.
Earlier this month, Marques unearthed disturbing details of an alleged massacre perpetrated by government forces at the encampment of a Christian sect in the central province of Huambo. Some 3,000 members of the Seventh Day in the Light of World church were living there in hillside settlement, reportedly awaiting the end of the world, when police attempted to arrest their leader, Jose Julino Kalupeteka. In the ensuing chaos, Marques said police and heavily armed security forces "shot for over three hours" at the mass of people.
"You had 3,000 people sitting there, basically in prayers, and they started shooting at them as if in a military operation," Marques told VICE News last week.
Dos Santos' government claimed the sect was a "threat to peace and to national unity," and reported only 13 residents had perished in the confrontation, along with eight police officers. Marques said multiple interviews with police who took part in the operation indicated hundreds had likely been killed and summarily buried.
Marques said he would resume his investigations into corruption and human rights abuses, including the incident in Huambo, next week.
The outcome of the trial, he said, set an important precedent that could be applied to current and future human rights investigations.
"It is important for human rights defenders and those who strive to promote human rights not to give up," said Marques. "We have to do something with the authorities to change the landscape, and to continue to press the authorities to bring the protection of human rights … these should not be compromised."