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Africa

'Bad joke' trial of 17 Angolan activists drags on ... and on ... and on

media The young activists are seen here at their trial in Luanda earlier this month Central Angola

The trial of 17 Angolan activists accused of plotting a coup against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos resumed on Monday. Their supporters claim that the charges against them are false. Moreover, the trial may have been postponed again, in what friends and family say is like a “very, very bad joke”.

The 17 young Angolans started protesting against the Angolan government in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring.

They filmed some of these protests and the footage shows them gathering for just a few minutes before security forces shut them down, violently. 

Last June, 15 of these activists were arrested in a sweep by Angolan authorities.

Some had gathered to discuss a book called From Dictatorship to Democracy when they were arrested. The state accused them of “rebellion”, “attempted coup d'état” and “crimes against national security”.

These young men are teachers and musicians, not government officials, their supporters point out. Their only weapons were books and computers.

“How is it possible for these 15 young men [and two women] to start a rebellion without guns, without money and without anyone on the inside of the regime or inside the security services? It’s impossible,” said Monica Almeida, the wife of Luaty Beirao, one of the activists on trial.

But impossible or not, 15 of these activists were held in prison for almost six months from June to December 2015. During that time, several went on hunger strike and one tried to commit suicide.

In mid-December they were released but placed under house arrest, which came as a surprise to some. But Angola is going through a rough period, especially because of the economic crisis currently shaking the country. Almeida says the imprisoned activists were bad press for Angola and she thinks that they were released on house arrest to save face.

“People are very unhappy right now. We are experiencing an economic crisis in Angola,” she said. “The case of the 15 young people arrested made a lot of noise here and the public opinion is with the activists. The government knows this.”

With wide popular support for the activists, Almeida says that continuing this trial places the government between a rock and a hard place. They might not want to pursue the trial but they may be scared of losing credibility if they don’t.

This tricky situation may be why the trial keeps getting postponed, as well.

It first started in November.

It was then suspended a month later after a bizarre Facebook scandal.

In December an Angolan lawyer posted a list of his nominations for a fake “new government” on Facebook, including some of those facing trial. He says it was a joke but Angolan officials are taking it seriously. They’ve said they want to question all 70 people on his list. But none of these "witnesses" showed up to the trial, originally set for 11 January, because, according to several sources, they did not receive summonses.

The trial was then pushed back to Monday 25 January. However, the same sources were reporting Monday afternoon that the trial had been postponed again.

Claudio Da Silva is an Angolan entrepreneur who is close with the activists on trial.

“It’s so absurd that it makes my head hurt,” he said.

Almeida, for her part, called the trial a “very, very bad joke”. But she remains hopeful, saying that she just can’t see the government sending these men to prison for any longer. She thinks it would be too unpopular.

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