The Southern Africa Litigation Center, Amnesty International and over a dozen other human rights organizations including the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights have signed on to an open letter demanding justice for crusading journalist Rafael Marques, whose exposés have offended several military officials and other higher-ups.
In their letter, published this week in a Malawian newspaper, the group praised Marques’ for “his long history of holding the Angolan government to account for human rights abuses and corruption through his insightful, thoughtful and well regarded journalistic investigations.
“For his efforts, he has been arrested and detained multiple times in Angola,” they wrote.
In the latest effort to silence Marques, legal action was launched by a group of generals over his book “Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola,” first published in Portugal in 2011. The book cites a litany of human rights violations – including killings, torture and forced evictions – that took place in Lunda Norte in northeastern Angola where diamond excavations were taking place. Military officials, diamond miners and private security contractors – named in the book – first attempted to sue Mr. Marques for defamation in Portugal but their case was dismissed.
After the book appeared, the author filed a charge with the Angolan Attorney General on Nov. 14, 2011. He called on the authorities to investigate the moral responsibility of the generals for serious abuses. After hearing victims’ testimony in 2012, the Attorney General set the case aside. New charges were then filed against Marques.
If convicted, he faces up to nine years in prison and damages of $1.2 million on the charge.
“Mr Marques is the recipient of numerous prestigious international awards for his work. He is an equal opportunity human rights defender, working to expose violations no matter who is the accused or accuser,” the open letter writers noted.
Angola, the fourth-biggest diamond producing country by value, has been relaxing restrictions to exploration and development after producers, including South African giant De Beers, cut back operations during the global financial crisis. The move is worrying environmentalists as well as local people and the rise in numbers of anti-government protests is an irritant to the authorities who are keen to make an example of Marques with a successful prosecution.
In his speech as joint winner of the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expressions in Journalism award last week, one of several international honors he has received, Marques said that the trial would make him stronger.
“It will show Angolans there is nothing to fear and challenge them to hold the authorities to account,” he said in a press interview.
Seven journalists have been murdered in Angola since 1992 and many others intimidated or imprisoned, according to The Guardian newspaper. This month two activists, Marcos Mavungo and Arao Bula Tempo, were arrested in Angola’s northern oil-producing province Cabinda, hours before an anti-government protest was due to take place. They have been jailed on charges of sedition. Previous demonstrations have been broken up using what Human Rights Watch call “excessive force” and last year a female student was hospitalised after a beating by police for taking part in a march.
Other signers to the open letter include Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the UK-based Media Legal Defense Initiative.
*The book is not yet available in English.