The Angolan rapper Ikonoklasta has garnered international attention in recent weeks, but not for his music. The hip-hop star and political activist, whose real name is Luaty Beirão, has instead gained notoriety for being one of 15 activists who have spent the last few months behind bars on charges of plotting to overthrow Angola's government.
As the controversial trial opens this week, the case has elicited international outcry from politicians and activists around the world against a government that appears determined to stifle dissent within the nation. The People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has governed the country since it declared independence from Portugal in 1975, and controls Angola's valuable oil and mineral reserves. Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for 36 years.
"In the past few months we've seen a tightening of freedom by the government, so we're worried about whether these 15 youth activists are actually going to receive a fair trial," said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International's deputy director for Southern Africa. The organization does not operate in Angola due to government restrictions. "Our major call is really for them to be released unconditionally."
The Angola 15, as the group has become known on social media, wore beige prison jumpsuits and — in a small act of protest as the long-awaited trial began — strolled into the courtroom barefoot for their first appearance on Monday. They were arrested during a politically oriented book club meeting on June 20, and their trial is expected to wrap up next week. Domingos da Cruz and Osvaldo Caholo, two other affiliated activists who are also set to face trial, have been out on bail since their arrests on June 21 and June 24.
Some are concerned about the fact that journalists were shut out of Monday's court proceedings after a lunch recess. Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the nonprofit organization RFK Human Rights, believes it is crucial that the hearings be public to ensure that the trial is fair.
"The fact that this minimal prerequisite is not being met in the case, as well as the overall lack of transparency involved, only raises more doubts about the credibility of Angola's judicial system," he said.
At the time of the Angola 15's arrest, the book the assembled activists were planning to discuss was Gene Sharp'sFrom Dictatorship to Democracy— a 20-year-old text about nonviolent political defiance that is often cited in protest movements. Though officials accuse the group of plotting to overthrow the government, the suspects spent three months in jail without being indicted until the 90-day limit to hold prisoners without charge expired. They were finally hit with counts of "preparing acts of rebellion and plotting against the president and state institutions," which could land them in jail for up to 12 years.
After three months in jail, several of the detainees started a hunger strike. Beirão held out the longest, lasting 36 days. He abandoned the strike on October 27 after his family asked him to stop because of his health.
On Monday, members of the US Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations signed a letter expressing concern over eroding rights and freedoms in Angola, specifically addressing the fate of the Angola 15.
"While I respect the sovereign right of the Angolan government to investigate and prosecute legitimate threats," wrote Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the committee's ranking member. "Questions remain about the motivation for the arrests of these young people, who — based on reports that I have seen — appear simply to have been discussing methods of peaceful protest."
The arrest of Beirão, an Angolan-Portuguese dual citizen, has sparked protests in Portugal. The country's ambassador to Angola visited the activist in the hospital during his hunger strike. According to Amnesty International, thousands of letters from around the world have flooded the Angolan embassy in Brazil expressing support for the detained activists.
Speaking to the Portuguese media outlet Público in October, Beirão said that authorities had arrested him for his opposition to the government and his well-known criticisms of dos Santos. The president, who once had close political ties with Beirão's father, is the only leader members of the Angola 15 have ever known.
Beirão told Público that he was being persecuted "because I took a clear position against the current state of things."
"I wasn't the first one to do it," he said. "But all you need is someone who wants to please the boss and says, 'This boy needs to be punished, he needs to learn that he shouldn't mess up with the almighty Angolan state and with the almighty MPLA.' "
Resistance against the state began to percolate in 2011, when young demonstrators planned a pro-democracy rally for March 7 in the capital city of Luanda. During a concert just days ahead of the protest, Beirão publicly announced that he would participate in the event. Protesters assembled in the middle of the night and were arrested within 25 minutes. Despite the event's short duration, it was the first demonstration of its kind since Angola's 26-year civil war ended in 2002.
According to Claudio Silva, a 27-year-old Angolan writer and friend of the detained activists, March 7, 2011 marked a shift in the demographics of the opposition movement. Prior to the 2011 demonstration, he explained, anti-government sentiments were concentrated among the country's poor, who were upset largely because they saw little benefit from the nation's vast oil wealth.
Beirão and his middle- and upper-class compatriots, many of whom are college educated and have parents with regime connections, brought a new dynamic to the movement aimed at getting dos Santos to loosen his grip on power. As oil prices have plummeted over the past year, they have also felt the effects of the financial crisis in Angola, which produces the second highest amount of oil in Africa after Nigeria.
"The fact that you have the Angolan middle class, traditionally the biggest support of the party in power, [involved in protests] is huge," he said, explaining that even locally, a majority of the people attending vigils for the detainees hadn't participated in these kind of demonstrations before. "It's never happened to this extent."
More than 30 peaceful protest events have occurred in Angola since 2011, according to figures from Amnesty. But the government has not adjusted well to the growing youth activist movement. In a 2014 report, Amnesty highlighted the government's increased targeting of Angolans who criticize dos Santos and his regime.
In one instance, two men who had helped plan demonstrations disappeared. Information later revealed that government security forces had killed them. In another, a Presidential Security Unit member shot and killed a man who was putting up dissenting posters. A recent high-profile case saw Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques thrown behind bars for defamation over his 2011 book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola. The exposé shed light on torture and killings connected with diamond mining operations in the country, and accused a group of generals of profiting from the trade. Authorities dropped the defamation charges against the author in May after he reached an out-of-court settlement.
"They keep on clamping down on youth even though they say they are a democracy," Silva said. "Obviously you don't get democracy overnight, it's a process. Rather than going in one direction, it's going backwards."
While the Angolan government may be rebuffing calls to end the trial, youth activists across Africa have taken up the cause on social media. Over the last week, dozens of Twitter users from a diverse set of countries like Nigeria and Tunisia were tweeting their support under the hashtag #Angola15.
Acha Harrison, a 23-year-old social activist from Edo state in Nigeria who runs the nonprofit Youth Inspire Initiative, is among the activists voicing their concern on Twitter. Harrison took issue with both dos Santos's decades-long rule and the government's decision to detain the activists.
"It's unlawful for them to be detained. They have [a right to] freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but these rights have been denied," he said. "They need voices to speak up for them."
While Harrison acknowledged that Nigeria does not face the same autocratic rule as Angola, he said that problems in one of the region's countries can invariably affect the next.
"When we are united, we can fight a cause," he remarked. "I have never met them, but they are my brothers."
Silva is encouraged that others in Africa are increasingly paying attention to the case of the Angola 15, particularly following movements in Senegal and Burkina Faso that have succeeded in checking autocratic rule. The popular Senegalese rapper Xuman and other local musicians released politically oriented music ahead of the 2000 presidential elections, which saw a new party come to power for the first time in 40 years. Meanwhile, popular protests that unfolded in the streets of Burkina Faso in October 2014 led to the ouster of President Blaise Campaorè, who had been in power for 27 years.
"It's very positive that this story has gotten out in Africa," Silva said. "It's important that other people in the continent are looking at what's happening politically in Angola."
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