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'I Will Fight Until the End': Angolan Journalist Tried for Libel After Revealing Atrocities

Award-winning investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais is facing defamation charges over his allegations that nine Angolan generals committed crimes against humanity.

by Samuel Oakford
May 15 2015, 5:40pm

Photo by Estelle Maussion/AFP/Getty Images

The long-anticipated libel trial of Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais resumed Thursday in the country's capital of Luanda, as he faces charges lodged against him by generals whom he accused of human rights abuses and corruption in his 2011 book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola.

The 43-year-old reporter has stressed the need for journalistic independence in Angola and received various press freedom awards in recent years. Despite the charges against him, he uncovered details of an alleged government massacre in the Central African country just two weeks ago.

In his book, Marques alleged that the Angolan army and private security guards carried out more than 100 killings and 500 incidents of torture and were responsible for forced displacements in the country's diamond-rich Lunda Norte province. Marques accused army generals and mining companies of profiting handsomely from the abusive diamond trade, and of colluding to conceal the violence.

Related: Crony Capitalism and Crushed Dissent in Angola

Following the book's release, Marques filed a criminal complaint in Luanda against nine Angolan generals, several of them high-ranking members of the government, alleging that they had committed crimes against humanity. Seven of the generals, along with board members of the mining companies ITM Mining and Sociedade Mineira do Cuango, fired back with lawsuits against Marques de Morais in Angola and in the courts of Angola's colonial ruler, Portugal, where the book was published.

The legal claims in Portugal were thrown out in 2013 due to lack of evidence, but charges in Angola, where Marques could face nine years in prison and a fine of $1.2 million, have proceeded. Angolan authorities have not investigated the claims Marques raised in Blood Diamonds.

Marques, who spoke with VICE News on Friday, said he was questioned by prosecutors about the actions of the generals, and whether he ever saw them physically shoot anyone.

"They are not even disputing that the crimes happened," said Marques. "What I said clearly is, as the owners of the companies, they are morally responsible for what the companies did. They knew these issues were happening."

Marques said that despite the theater of a trial, he had reason to believe the verdict is already in.

"From what I know, there is already a sentence," he said.

Mooya Nyaundi, a consultant with the American Bar Association, told VICE News the legal organization has sent an observer to monitor the closed-door trial. American and European Union representatives were also in attendance, according to the Portuguese newspaper Publico. After Thursday's proceedings, the presiding judge adjourned the trial until May 21, citing his own exhaustion.

Marques first appeared in court in March. An adjournment until April was postponed owing to discussions between the plaintiffs and the defendant amid signs that some sort of settlement was near.

"There were fairly advanced talks between the March date and the April date, but then they sort of fell apart," Sarah Hager, a southern Africa country specialist at Amnesty International USA, told VICE News.

Earlier this month, Marques published a story in the Guardian that outlined the details of an alleged massacre that took place on April 16 in the central Huambo province at the hands of Angolan police. Angolan officials admitted that a confrontation occurred at hillside encampments of the Seventh Day in the Light of the World sect, where some 3,000 followers of its leader Jose Julino Kalupeteka were living. The sect's members, who have broken off from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, are said to be waiting there for the end of the world.

The government of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos claimed the esoteric sect was "a threat to peace and to national unity." Officials said that alleged snipers among the sect's flock had killed eight police officers, and that only 13 residents had died in a firefight. Marques, after speaking with sources in the police and military, painted a disturbing picture of government atrocities that went well beyond the official narrative.

"They told me how pilgrims were mown down indiscriminately, many of them praying to the end," he wrote, relaying what he was told by some of those who took part. "They all gave accounts of how makeshift shelters were set alight with people inside."

"These officers also told me how they bore witness to the filling of mass graves, dug by an excavator," he added.

Days after Marques linked to the article on his website, makaangola.org, the site was hacked and forced offline.

"It was a botched, ill-conceived operation that went completely wrong," Marques told VICE News. "You had three thousand people sitting there, basically in prayers, and they started shooting at them as if in a military operation."

"They shot for over three hours," he said.

In a statement this week, the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) cited varying reports of casualties related to the incident. They range from the 13 the government admits were killed to the more than 1,000 that opposition politicians say perished.

The UN, echoing Marques, warned that "recent editorials and reports in state media condemning the sect have been very worryingly virulent."

OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told VICE News that Angola was a "particularly difficult country to verify information in," and noted that the UN does not have a human rights office in the country.

Hager said it's unclear why the sect was targeted by Angolan authorities, but noted the region is seen as a stronghold for the country's main opposition political party UNITAS, which claimed the higher death toll.

Before disarming in 2002, UNITAS and the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the party of President dos Santos, fought a nearly three-decade civil war that left more than 500,000 people dead. The conflict's legacy has festered in the form of mass corruption among the military and the country's elite. Little of the country's massive oil wealth has trickled down to the average Angolan, who still lives on less than $2 per day.

Related: Africa Could Become the Next Bright Spot for Solar Power Production

Expenditures on the Angolan military, meanwhile, have grown more than fifteen-fold since the end of the war in 2002,totaling some $6.8 billion in 2014. Oil wealth in the handsomely redeveloped capital has made Luanda arguably the most expensive city for Western workers, with the average price for a two-bedroom apartment at $6,600. Migrant laborers have meanwhile been rounded up en masse by the government, raising concerns over human rights violations, while the diamond mines Marques wrote of could not seem farther away from the country's gleaming capital.

Under Angola's 2010 constitution, the country's president is selected by the winning party in national parliamentary elections. In 2012, the MPLA, which gave up its official Marxist-Leninst ideology in 1990, won in a landslide. Dos Santos, who has ruled Angola since 1979, was appointed to a five-year term. The president's family, including his billionaire daughter Isabela, maintain vast interests in the Angolan economy, which are widely viewed as ill-gotten. Angola was elected to a seat on the UN Security Council in 2014, which it occupied earlier this year.

"Marques is a thorn in the side of the Angolan government and the military because he speaks truth to power," Anne Pitcher, a professor of political science who has written extensively on Lusophone Africa, told VICE News. "His revelations undercut efforts by the government to enhance their international standing, to foster legitimacy at home, and to cultivate an image of cosmopolitanism."

"I think what worries the government the most is that Marques would not have the information that he has about the wealth of Angola's generals, payments from Angolan sovereign wealth fund to shell companies, and human rights abuses without having reliable contacts in very high places," she added.

This year's trial is not the first time Marques has had to face Angola's justice system. In 1999, he was locked up for 43 days without charges following the publication of an article titled "The Lipstick of Dictatorship" that heavily criticized dos Santos.

"I was imprisoned in sub-human conditions," Marques wrote in a post on his site last year. "It was during that period that I lived the reality of human rights abuses. Far from breaking me, it outraged me."

Sixteen years later, protests against the governing party have become more common, but for muckrakers like Marques, the results are much the same. "There is only one outcome that would serve justice and that is to send me home in peace," Marques told Reuters this week.

The Index on Censorship awarded Marques its annual journalism award earlier this year, citing his investigation into abuses committed by Angola's mining industry.

Like other human rights advocates, Hager greatly admires Marques's work. His reporting in Huambo, she said, illustrated how deeply enmeshed he is, with sources both high and low.

"Everyone is in the dark, but he got a whole list of information that no one has been able to get a hold of," she said. "He's never been implicated in any way, shape, or form in not following journalistic procedure."

Marques says he has no plans to leave Angola, despite what he sees as his trial's predetermined outcome.

"The idea that Africans always have to be on the run and go to Europe or America because things are not good at home is not going to happen to me. I will fight until the end," said Marques. "Those who commit crimes, who abuse the country are the ones who should leave the country. 

This article has been updated to include an interview with Marques.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

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