‘Due to closed civic space, it is difficult to build the resilience of communities inside the country’
CIVICUS speaks with Helen Kidan, executive member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), about 20 years of crackdown by the Eritrean government and continuing human rights violations.
Founded in 2003, EMDHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at raising awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.
What human rights violations are committed by the Eritrean government?
Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in Africa and is rated one the worst countries in the world for press freedoms:Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 index ranks it 179th out of 180 countries. There is no space for civil society, as there are no freedoms of association, peaceful assembly or expression.
Thereport of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, published in 2016, details a number of human rights violations by the regime, with crimes including genocide, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, torture, forced labour and indefinite national service, which many have considered akin to slavery.
Human rights situation in Africa: a special focus on shrinking of civic space
CIVICUS statement at the 71st Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
‘Civil society needs a compelling counter-narrative’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Lynnette Micheni from PAWA254, an organisation that fosters social accountability and active citizenship among young people, mainly through arts and media.
1.Your organisation, PAWA254, defines itself as a movement of young, socially conscious artists and activists. How do you connect art and activism in your work?
We use art, pop culture and media as an empowerment tool. We believe in artistic expression as a means for social change and the deepening of democracy, and we harness it to advocate for the rights and responsibilities of Kenyans, and against social and political vices, including corruption and abuse of power. As a result of our work, we have seen ‘artivists’ multiply, and a movement of active, freethinking youth emerge in our country.
We work with a variety of arts and media, including photography, film, spoken word, poetry graffiti, cartoons, blogging and writivism, which has opened such great spaces for accountability in Kenya.
Our programs are two pronged: some focus on the economic development of emerging creatives and activists and others on social accountability, all the while leveraging the arts, pop culture and media.
The former entails developing the capacity of emerging artists and facilitating the integration of artistic expression for livelihoods development through the provision of a state-of-the-art co- working space consisting of creative suites, professional equipment, skills transfer and networking opportunities. PAWA convenes key annual events such as the PAWA Festival, an annual street festival that showcases East Africa’s visual and performing arts and disseminates the Kenya Photography Awards.
Our social accountability programs entail using art and pop culture as a form of civic engagement through dance, poetry, graffiti, theatre, music, film and photography to spark civic participation by focusing attention on emerging social concerns in the country and to prompt action in the process. Key current interventions include Off-The-Record, a weekly space where participants can express their thoughts on issues affecting society strictly off the record, with no fear of censorship or repercussions; #JengaHustle, an initiative aimed at advancing policies regarding employment and decent jobs for youth; #EmergingVoices, an intergenerational leadership development project aimed at empowering emerging social justice organisers and #ARealManIs, a transformative masculinity project aimed at leveraging media in mobilising young men’s fight against gender-based violence.
2. Does artivism, and activism in general, face any challenges in Kenya?
Indeed. Civil society is currently fighting a battle for its legitimacy, and it’s not winning. From every podium, including national television, the government is pushing a narrative discrediting civil society. Last year, two prominent human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) were shut down over their alleged non-compliance with regulations, including tax and employment laws, and for operating without a licence. There have been attempts to de-register other organisations as well.
The prevailing narrative is that activists and CSOs are donor-funded disrupters. The idea is also being disseminated that people do it for the money. If you mobilise, you are asked: ‘how much have you been paid?’ – like there is no other driver than money. Ideas or visions of change don’t count. They will say that critical civil society activists and organisations are ‘Soros people’ - implying they are being funded by the Open Society Foundations and are therefore puppets of foreign interests. It is very difficult to counter this narrative when it is constantly being propagated on national television.
It is also a challenge that there is a growing apathy amongst young people who are very well aware of their constitutional rights, resulting in an overreliance on individual activists.
3. What is being done in response to this?
What needs to be done is put together and disseminate a compelling counter-narrative. We know this is difficult because the problem has deep roots. So, the first thing we need to do is understand why it is so easy for governments to target civil society, in Kenya and elsewhere.
We first heard about ‘fake news’ a couple of years ago, and it was all happening far away, in the USA. But the trend has progressed very fast, and in the context of presidential elections last year we suffered an epidemic of fake news. It was all over social media, which is a major source of information for Kenyan citizens, and it distorted the political conversation, and maybe the outcomes of the elections as well. Young people, the group that most uses social media, were particularly misled by fake news stories aimed at stirring conflict and dividing civil society.
The abundance of fake news can be very disconcerting for young people that have little experience with interpreting data and are ill-equipped to tell the difference between legitimate and fake information. How do you sustain online movements while avoiding the infiltration of narratives based on fake news? How do you manage to bring online movements offline and keep them going in a context in which the political discussion is distorted to such extent?
Young people are also particularly vulnerable to empty electoral promises of jobs and other benefits. Lots of promises are made at election times but no policies are ever enacted to fulfil them afterward. And people keep believing every time. The problem is that we have a whole generation of people who form their opinions based on headlines, and also build their activism on the basis of headlines – and under the headlines, there is usually no real content.
The government is aware that evidence-based activism is lacking, and they do have smart and better prepared people, so they sometimes invite civil society to the table and pair them with a government technician, even on live television. Civil society activists are not always in a position to prepare adequately to respond. So it is difficult to connect and sustain civil society struggles, and instead it is so easy for the government to co-opt civil society actors.
This is why we work to empower people, and young people in particular, to seek facts, to interpret them and understand their implications, to make decisions based on them, and to use them to monitor the government, hold it accountable and ensure it responds to citizens’ needs. We believe that arts, pop culture and media remain a viable tool to engage with the youth and are keen to continue investing in them.
Civic space in Kenya is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
‘There are signs of hope, but we are not waiting with our arms crossed but pushing for reforms that improve our lives’
Angola saw a change at the top in 2017, when President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after a staggering 38 years in power, to be replaced by President Joao Lourenco. His rule was characterised by close control of the nation’s oil wealth, to the benefit of his family and the ruling elite, which necessitated a tight grip on civil society to prevent it exposing corruption and demanding a fairer distribution of wealth. As part of the state’s repression of civil society, in 2015, 15 young activists were arrested and detained for taking part in a group that discussed a book on liberation. The group were held in poor conditions, mistreated and, after an unfair trial, found guilty of rebellion. One of that group, activist and rapper Luaty Beirão, speaks to CIVICUS about what changes may be underway in Angola, and how civil society is trying to engage constructively to seek reform under the new president.
1. What changed for Angolan civil society in 2017?
2017 was a very interesting year for us. After six years of struggle aimed at our President, José Eduardo dos Santos - who when we started had been in power for 32 years, and in 2017 marked 38 years in power - he finally did not run for the presidency again. So we have a new president for the first time. I was born under dos Santos, and finally I have a second president.
It’s the same regime and the same party that has been in power for 42 years, so we were not expecting the new president to act against his predecessors. What dos Santos did towards the end of his term was put his family, especially his children, in very sensitive positions in our economy. His daughter Isabel dos Santos was chair of the national oil company, Sonangol - oil is our main resource - and his son José Filomeno dos Santos managed the US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund. We did not expect the new president to move so swiftly, but in under 90 days he’d sacked Isabel dos Santos and got José Filomeno dos Santos under control: he should not last much longer because he’s recently been implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Two other children - Welwitschia and José Paulinos dos Santos - were in charge of two private companies, Westside and Semba Comunicações, which had a US$30 million contract with the state to run public TV service Channel 2. But now they have lost the contract and Semba Comunicações has closed.
The new president is also giving some space for judicial and state investigators to track how public money was used. Some cases are starting to arise, including some that affect the former president’s family interests. Isobel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, is also being sued abroad. Things are starting to catch up on them really quickly. It is interesting to see the new president allowing this to happen, although it might come back to bite him: it is impossible for him be clean because he has been in government for so many years.
One of the main reasons why we thought the new president would not do anything is that under the Angolan electoral system we vote for a party, not a candidate for president, and dos Santos remains the president of the ruling party. We expected him to tell party members what to do. We knew there was disruption within the ruling party, but the level of disruption is only now becoming apparent.
2. How is civil society reacting to these changes and the new opportunities that may open?
For us, there are signs of hope. The new president’s intentions appear to be good, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt.
In 2011, we decided that confrontation was the only way to go, because if we tried to do small projects on the side, they would only come and shut us down. We decided that to get our ideas working, we first needed to liberate ourselves from totalitarian rule.
Now the old president is gone and the new president is showing some openness, so we want to explore the situation and find out how far this openness reaches. Instead of looking for confrontation, as we had to do in the past, we have started to propose ideas, especially on social media. This is because to cast an image of himself as more democratic and open to modern society, the new president has official accounts on Facebook and Twitter, as do the Minister of Communication and the Governor of the capital city, Luanda. So we know they are reading our comments and they know we are there not just to be critical, but that we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are things we want to propose and see how they react to them, so we are testing them. I hope this interesting phase we're now in will shift us away from the need that we had before to be confrontational.
Even huge opponents of the old regime are applauding some of the new president’s initiatives. Hope is rising in Angola. We hope he is wise enough to keep it going longer. I hope he takes in all this positive energy and he finds it contagious and carries on going.
But we are not just waiting with our arms crossed. We are pushing for reform initiatives and showing the government that we are ready to back its actions if they are going to have positive repercussions in improving our lives and lifting the limitations we suffered from 1975 to 2017.
3. What changes should take place to show that the new president is serious in seeking reform?
There are many simple things that can be done, and small steps can keep hope alive. We want to carry on believing. We don't want to be disillusioned.
The new president should acknowledge the need for a strong civil society, rather than try to co-opt it into government. It would help if civil society actors saw their points of view taken into consideration when major decisions are made. The government should show more openness, for instance by being more present on social media and making live broadcasts of meetings.
There should be a constitutional reform. The 2010 constitution was designed to suit dos Santos. It gives too many powers to a president that is not even directly elected by the people. The president appoints judges to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Military Court, and these judges report directly to the president, so there is no separation of powers. This needs to change. If the president wants to effect real change, he should reduce his own powers.
Regarding corruption, the new president should open a public debate and the public should accept that it is useful to know who were guilty of stealing public money and where the money went. But rather than focusing on sending those people to prison, we need to find a way to recover the money and have it invested in Angola.
We don’t expect the new president to transform the country in two days, but we do want him to show he is willing to listen and put into practice other people’s ideas, to experiment and open up.
We want to not have to be constantly fighting and confronting the powers that be. It’s exhausting, especially when you get beaten up, you get stitches in your head and you have to spend a year in prison. I would really love to shift my activism. I just want to feel like an active citizen. I want to carry on sharing my thoughts and ideas without being involved in conflict the whole time.
4. Apart from corruption, what are the major challenges that the new president faces?
There is urgent need to invest in education and health. Although theoretically we have free access to these public services, in practice that is not the case, and people in the ministries that are supposed to make these services work have stolen money, so we lack basic equipment and supplies. There is need for serious investment, starting with education, which will also help with public health knowledge. We need educated Angolans to manage the country. We are still very reliant on foreign capacities and foreign consultants, who charge huge amounts of money. We should also be developing tourism, but for the time being it is very hard to get visas for Angola.
Long-term investment is needed. Our national budget for the last 15 years has had double the amount going to security than to education and health. We are not at war and face no military threat. The only explanation for this is that the military control society. In fact, there are three different secret services operating in Angola.
Holding local elections is another important task for the new president. Local elections have been delayed for over seven years so far, with excuses such as lack of money or the need for a new law that has not been drafted. Of course, the ruling party doesn’t want elections because it risks losing constituencies.
There are good things going on in this part of the continent. Why can’t we follow the good examples instead of always comparing ourselves to the worst cases?
5. What role should the international community and civil society play? Do we need to change our approach to Angola?
When we started our movement in Angola, we were not thinking about finding supporters. We just did it out of urgency. But when you act following your heart and convictions, you draw international attention. Luckily for us, when we landed in prison a worldwide civil society movement advocated on our behalf.
There are always more things that can be done. But the situation on the ground is so dynamic that it's hard for big structures to follow through and adapt quickly. One of the things big structures need to do is acknowledge their difficulty to adapt and recognise that civil society movements worldwide are becoming increasingly less formalised. On the other hand, for informal groups it is also hard to adjust to the formal ways of access to international civil society organisations. We don't even know the jargon or terminology. We don’t know how a letter to the UN should be structured. There may be a need for capacity building in that regard. It might help if we were shown how to identify and reach out to the right people in the right places, and if we had help in building networks and identifying similarities and parallels that could serve as a basis for dialogue.
Activism and the state: How African civil society responds to repression
By David Kode and Mouna Ben Garga
In most African countries, freedom of expression, assembly and association are stifled by state and non-state actors through the use of restrictive legislation, policies, and judicial persecution as well as physical attacks, threats and detention of activists and journalists. While these restrictions generally occur when civil society groups speak out in direct opposition to public policy, there is strong evidence that restrictions increase during politically sensitive periods, like elections and prior to constitutional changes on term limits of political leaders. African citizens, activists and organisations are finding new and innovative ways to resist, organise and mobilise in the face of mounting restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Read on: Pambazuka
Adjournment of Civil Society Activists’ Trial in Cameroon Shows State Has No Case
JOHANNESBURG – Three civil society leaders in Cameroon remain imprisoned in solitary confinement and on trial for leading peaceful protests, following their court appearance on 27 July.
The trial of Felix Balla Nkongho, Fontem Neba and Mancho Bibixy in a military court in the capital, Yaoundé, was adjourned for the third time since it began over six months ago. The activists face various spurious charges, some which, like treason and terrorism, carry the death penalty. A fourth activist, Justice Ayah Paul Abine is being held incommunicado at the Secretariat for Defense while hundreds of others remain detained at the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé.
The activists were arrested in January 2017 after publicly raising concerns against the marginalisation of Cameroonians in the country’s Anglophone North West and South West regions, by the Francophone regime of President Paul Biya. They had called for the reforms in the legal and education system. Their organisation, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), has been banned.
“We strongly condemn the ongoing arbitrary arrests and unjustified prosecution of individuals opposing the atrocities in defiance of human rights standards. The international community has a responsibility to help end the cycle of persecution in Cameroon.” Said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS:
The trial itself has been marked by irregularities and a lack of due process. In the latest proceedings, the judge began by kicking one of the defence attorneys out of court. The defence team’s representations in English were also mistranslated into French by the court interpreter. In addition, the judge claimed that the state was not aware of the trial of the activists.
CIVICUS also expresses growing concern at the deepening human rights crisis. Reports of human rights violations in the Anglophone regions include the shooting and killing of unarmed protesters; arbitrary arrests; detention without trial; torture; legal harassment and unjust prosecutions; the targeting of journalists and media outlets; and the shutdown of the internet for months.
We call on the Cameroonian authorities to release all detained protesters and ensure that democratic rights to freedom of expression and assembly are respected.
We further call on the international community to increase efforts to engage the Biya regime to find lasting solutions to the conflict. We particularly urge the United Nations to intervene on behalf of barrister Nkongho, who has served the UN as a human rights and legal advisor to the UN Mission in Afghanistan, and the other activist leaders on trial.
Note: Civic space in Cameroon is rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global tracking tool of violations against the freedom of expression, association and assembly.
For more information, contact:
CIVICUS Media Advisor
Africa to Address Post- 2015 Disaster Resilience Agenda
Governments from over 50 countries in Africa will meet in Arusha, Tanzania from 13-15 February for the Fourth Africa Regional Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction (ARP) to address the challenges of building a disaster resilient society.
The Africa region is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is projecting economic growth of 5.25% for sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, a rate that places the region second only to Asia's booming economies and well above a world forecast of 3.6%.
As the countries in this blossoming region continue to develop, this impressive growth could be undermined by exposure to disaster risks and a changing climate. A recent statement "Raising the African Voice" at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the African Science Academies, claims that climate change will impact Africa more severely than any other region in the world and that severe weather events such as droughts and floods are on the increase.
Read more at reliefweb
African Union Makes Moves to Neutralise Africa’s Main Human Rights Body
By David Kode, CIVICUS Advocacy and Campaigns lead
For many African activists based on the continent, getting to a major human rights summit just underway in The Gambia is likely to have been a challenging exercise. The journey by air from many African countries to the capital, Banjul, for the 63rd Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), could have been prohibitively expensive, involved transiting through multiple cities and taken days.u
ALGERIA: ‘The authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and civic freedoms in Algeria with Rachid Aouine, Director for SHOAA for Human Rights.
SHOAA for Human Rights is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and protecting human rights in Algeria. Founded in 2020 and based in London, UK, it raises human rights awareness and monitors, documents and denounces abuses committed against citizens by those in power.
What is the current situation of human rights and civic space in Algeria?
As a result of the escalation of repressive practices by the Algerian authorities, human rights are in a critical state. Arbitrary arrests have increased, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political activists associated with political parties linked to the Hirak protest movement for their exercise of the rights to the freedoms of association, expression, belief and peaceful assembly. In recent months they have been criminalised in an unprecedented way.
The authorities are unjustly prosecuting people for their alleged association with the political opposition movements Rachad and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie, which in May 2021 were designated as ‘terrorist organisations’ by the High Security Council. This is a consultative body chaired by the president. It has also blamed these organisations for the devastating forest fires that overtook north-eastern Algeria in August 2021 and the murder of activist and artist Djamel Bensmaïl while he was in police custody. It announced it would intensify efforts to arrest their members until their ‘total eradication’.
Since early 2021, prosecutions on bogus terrorism charges have proliferated alarmingly. For those convicted of these charges, the Penal Code dictates sentences ranging from one year in jail to lifelong imprisonment and the death penalty.
Of course, those arrested and prosecuted have seen their due process and fair trial guarantees systematically violated.
A new wave of arrests started in February 2022. Why are the authorities targeting human rights defenders in such large numbers?
The Algerian authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society. Human rights defenders are the only limit to their power, because they are the only ones defending and advocating for human rights in Algeria. Their elimination would effectively end the flow of information about the human rights violations they commit to the outside world.
Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power. To cover up the ongoing human rights violations, they are using systematic repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders and the exercise of the freedom of expression.
Three years after the Hirak protests, the authorities continue to restrict protests. What tactics of suppression do they use?
Indeed, three years after Hirak (which stands for ‘movement’ in Arabic) peacefully pushed for political change and forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, at least 300 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, are being held by the authorities.
Through presidential decrees, the Algerian authorities have recently enacted new legislation hostile to the freedoms of expression and assembly. In June 2021, the Penal Code was amended by presidential decree, leading to the expansion of an already too broad definition of terrorism. People are now being accused of crimes such as ‘offending public bodies’, ‘spreading false information’, ‘membership of a terrorist group’, ‘apology for terrorism’, and ‘conspiracy against state security’. A Facebook post may lead to charges such as ‘using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas’ and ‘disseminating information that could harm the national interest’. Even a simple remittance is listed as an act of treason.
All human rights defenders and advocates who fall under the thumb of these new laws, in particular articles 87 bis and 95 bis of the Penal Code, are automatically slapped with vague charges such as ´undermining national unity’ as well as bogus terrorism-related charges. Despite the presentation of evidence of their innocence by their defence, judicial authorities impose the verdicts sought by the authorities.
The authorities are also accusing pro-Hirak CSOs of allegedly holding activities contrary to the objectives listed in the Law on Associations and in their own by-laws. On this basis, some of them have been dissolved, including Rassemblement Action Jeunesse and the cultural association SOS Beb El Oued, whose president was sentenced to a year in prison for ‘undermining national unity and national interest’ in connection with the association’s activities.
Political activists and leaders of parties linked to Hirak are also punished for ‘crimes’ such as ‘calling for a gathering’, and parties are accused of not complying with the Law on Political Parties by organising ‘activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws’. This happened, for example, after several activists gathered to discuss the establishment of a united front against repression.
What needs to change in Algeria?
Civil society must be preserved while there is still something left. Civil society plays a major role in any movement for change. When CSOs are absent or disabled, people are left without protection and guidance. This is especially true in efforts to avoid violence and prevent human rights violations; when a society is devoid of CSOs, people lack guidance in knowing what steps to take and human rights violations go unaccounted for. Civil society associations, centres and bodies are key for framing the protest movement – to provide it with structure, strategy and a goal.
If nothing is done about it, the authorities will continue repressing independent civil society and the human rights situation will worsen. If nothing is done, the goal of democracy and respect for human rights will float further and further away, until it’s completely out of reach.
How can international civil society support Algerian civil society in its struggle for human rights and democratic freedoms?
Algerian civil society cannot achieve its goals on its own; it needs cooperation and support from the international community. To address human rights violations and promote democratic freedoms in Algeria, domestic civil society must establish relationships of cooperation and work jointly with international organisations.
Algerian civil society can develop an effective strategy by opening international lines of communication and becoming a major source of information on the real conditions of human rights on the ground. On the basis of this information, international organisations can help activate international monitoring mechanisms and put pressure for change on Algerian authorities.
Algeria: Arbitrary detention of journalist Khaled Drareni another blow to democratic transition
The undersigned civil society groups are alarmed at the continued and escalating attacks on civic space in Algeria and call on the government to end their crackdown on journalistic and other public freedoms. Despite President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announcing his desire to break with previous repressive practices, freedom of expression especially has come under severe attack since March 2020, with several journalists facing arbitrary arrest and prosecution for conducting their work in the country.
Illustrative of this intensifying crackdown, journalist Khaled Drareni was arrested on 29 March 2020 for filming a protest and was sentenced to two years in prison on appeal on 15 September. We strongly condemn the harsh and arbitrary sentencing of Drareni, and call for his immediate release and for charges against him to be dropped.
Restrictions on free assembly have also intensified following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the decision taken by the Hirak grassroots pro-democracy movement to suspend its weekly protests that had started in February 2019. Included in these restrictions is the arbitrary detention and prosecution of individuals associated with the protest movement and those who express support for it in multiple forums.
Article 50 of the Algerian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the legal framework still infringes on this right. Law 12-05 of 2012 (or the Law on Information) requires publishing houses to seek prior approval from the media regulatory authority for publications and violations can include fines of up to 500,000 dinars (roughly US$3900.00). On 23 April 2020, the Algerian parliament further reinforced this repressive legal environment by adopting amendments to the Penal Code that include harsh prison sentences for the dissemination of false information during a public health crisis, or for accessing funding (whether local or international) that the state deems “likely to undermine state security, stability, or normal functioning of [state] institutions,” or to undermine “the fundamental interests of Algeria” or “public security and order.” Algeria is rated “repressed” on the CIVICUS Monitor and is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2019 and 27 places lower than in 2015.
In this context, activists, artists and journalists have been increasingly detained for their journalist work and social media posts under the false and vague accusations of threatening national unity and inciting protests. The National Union of Magistrates (SNM) has also denounced the abusive recourse to pre-trial detention.
Under these worsening civic space conditions, and taking into consideration the health risks posed to detainees by COVID-19, the undersigned are notably concerned for:
- Algerian journalists, activists, and lawyers, including Said Boudour (a journalist facing charges of ‘defamation’ and ‘insulting the regime’, Amel Hadjadj (a woman human rights defender facing ongoing intimidation, including an arbitrary arrest on 21 November 2019 where she was physically abused), and Halim Feddal (founder of the Algerian National Association Against Corruption sentenced to six month’s imprisonment on 3 March 2020).
- Reporter Abdelkrim Zeghileche, who was sentenced to two years in prison on 24 August 2020 after he called for the creation of a new political party and criticized President Tebboune, and
- Activist Abdullah Benaoum, detained since December 2019, whose health is in very critical condition, and whose latest petition for pretrial release was rejected on 2 September
- Khaled Drareni, who was arrested alongside two protestors and activists, Samir Benlarbi and Slimane Hamitouche, and sentenced on appeal to two years’ imprisonment.
Drareni, who is editor of the Casbah Tribune news site and correspondent for TV5 Monde and Reporters without Borders, has been arbitrarily detained since 29 March 2020 solely for doing his job as a journalist. According to Amnesty International, Drareni was arrested while filming police approach protestors on 27 March 2020. On 10 August 2020, he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity” for his work covering the Hirak protests over the past year. Drareni was also charged a fine of 50,000 Dinars (roughly, US$390). During the appeal hearing on 8 September, the prosecution had requested four years in prison and a 50,000 DA fine against Drareni.
Following his initial sentencing on 10 August, solidarity protests calling for his release have erupted across the country, beginning in Algiers. Drareni attended his appeal on 8 September and appeared thin and weak, which prompted the national and international Khaled Drareni Support Committees to call for his immediate release on urgent health grounds.
In a joint statement issued on 16 September, UN Special Procedures condemned the jail sentence against the Algerian journalist and called for his release. The experts also called on Algeria to “halt the arrest and detention of political activists, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders, as well as any person who expresses dissent or criticism of the government,”, and affirmed that “Drareni, and all the others currently in prison, or awaiting trial simply for doing their job and defending human rights must be immediately released and protected.”
Given the current threats facing Drareni and all detained prisoners of conscience, urgent action is needed from the international community to ensure his release and call for an end to restrictions facing journalists, protestors and activists in Algeria. The undersigned specifically call on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Special Procedures; UN Member States; and the European Union, including Parliament, EEAS and Member States; to urge Algerian authorities to:
- Immediately and unconditionally release Khaled Drareni, dropping all charges against him;
- Immediately and unconditionally release all protestors, activists and journalists arbitrarily detained for their peaceful protests, activities and reporting, notably on the Hirak movement;
- Revise the legal framework, including the Penal Code, the 2012 Law on Information and the Law No. 09-04 of August 5, 2009, in line with international best practice to protect the right to freedom of expression in the country;
- Devise a plan to roll back the April amendment designed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, are time-limited, in line with international human rights standards, to ensure that these do not unduly curtail civic freedoms; and
- Cease all judicial harassment and intimidation against all protestors, activists and journalists and those facing restrictions for expressing their opinions online.
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Collectif des Familles de Disparus en Algérie
Humena for Human Rights and Civic Engagement
MENA Rights Group
Reporters without Borders (RSF)
Algeria: Critically-ill activist Abdallah Benaoum must be immediately released
The Algerian authorities have accelerated the arbitrary detention and prosecution of activists and journalists amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, most recently refusing requests to provisionally release and provide adequate medical care for Algerian activist Abdallah Benaoum, imprisoned solely for his critical views of the authorities' crackdown on Hirak protests, ten national, regional and international groups said today, ahead of his trial scheduled on 27 October. Lawyers and family members fear for Benaoum’s life.
Abdallah Benaoum has been in pre-trial detention for eleven months for Facebook posts he published criticizing the authorities and opposing the holding of presidential elections. He is in urgent need of a heart surgery that authorities are denying by his continuous unlawful detention and their refusal to grant him access to the medical care he requires.
On 28 May 2019, human rights defender Kamel Eddine Fekhar died in custody at the age of 55 after a 50-day hunger strike to protest his unlawful detention for expressing views critical of the government and his prison conditions. On 11 December 2016, British-Algerian freelance journalist Mohamed Tamalt, 41, died in custody in a hospital in Algiers, following a hunger strike to protest his ill-treatment during his imprisonment for Facebook posts "offending" then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
To avoid a similar fate for Abdullah Benaoum, the undersigned organisations call on Algeria to abide by its commitments under international human rights law, release Benaoum immediately and unconditionally, and allow him to undergo his heart surgery in accordance with his wishes.
Police in Oued Rhiou, a town in Relizane province, arrested Benaoum and another activist, Khaldi Ali, on 9 December 2019, three days before contentious presidential elections. A prosecutor in the Relizane First Instance Tribunal charged both men with "insulting state institutions," "undermining the integrity of the national territory," "harming national interest," “undermining army morale,” “attempting to pressure judges on pending cases” and "incitement to an unarmed gathering" under Articles 146, 79, 97, 75, 147 and 100 of the Penal Code.
None of these charges are legitimate offences under international human rights law since they impose undue restrictions to the right to freedom of expression. The case file indicates that the prosecutor presented as evidence videos and publications found on Benaoum's personal Facebook account, in which he called for the boycott of presidential elections, writing "no to military elections," "Hirak students in all governorates are faced with the harshest repression." In the posts he also criticized the light sentencing of a police officer for the killing of a young man in Oued Rhiou. The prosecutor submitted this as evidence that Benaoum was inciting disobedience and undermining state security.
On the day of his trial on 16 July, Benaoum was unable to stand on his feet and talk, according to his lawyer. The judge eventually agreed to call a doctor three hours after the opening of the trial. The doctor concluded that Benaoum was unfit to stand trial. However, despite this, the judge refused his lawyer's request for provisional release. On 2 September, the judge again rejected another petition for his provisional release. The hearing is now scheduled for 27 October.
Benaoum suffers from a heart condition – atherosclerosis - which can lead to a heart attack and requires urgent medical intervention. He underwent a first heart surgery in 2018, but his health condition started to deteriorate after an incarceration later that year and deteriorated further after his latest arrest in December 2019. Doctors established that he needed a second surgery.
In a hand-written letter submitted to his lawyers on 4 September 2020, the activist complained of poor medical care and ill-treatment in detention.
The authorities have denied multiple requests for provisional release on the motive that the allegations against him constitute serious crimes. Authorities have been transferring Benaoum back and forth between a prison in Relizane near his hometown and two prisons in the Oran province, at 160 km from his place of residence, which has further deteriorated his health. He is currently detained in the Oran central prison.
Denying a prisoner much-needed medical care violates the rights to health and to life and may amount to torture and other ill-treatment in certain circumstances. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules, require states to ensure that people in detention can enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, adequate or appropriate and timely medical care must be provided to all detainees as part of state duties. Similarly, according to Algerian law, “the right to medical care is guaranteed for all categories of detainees. Medical services are provided to inmates, in the establishment's infirmary or, if necessary, in any other health structures.”
Pre-trial detention must be an exceptional measure and based on an individualised determination that it is reasonable and necessary, specified in law and without vague and expansive standards. The Algerian authorities have failed to justify the need for the imposition of this measure, notably against a prisoner of conscience whose health and life are at risk. The decision to hold Benaoum in pre-trial detention despite the circumstances contravenes article 123 of the Algerian Code of Criminal Procedure as well as Algeria’s obligations under international human rights law.
The National Union of Magistrates has denounced the pervasive and abusive recourse to pre-trial detention as well as the lack of independence of the justice system from executive authorities, in a country where members of the judiciary have been sanctioned professionally for working independently or calling for judicial independence.
The authorities’ refusal to release him also runs counter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recommendation to release detainees to contain the spread of COVID-19, notably those who have underlying medical conditions and those held simply for expressing dissenting views. The recent death of two detainees and the infection of at least eight others illustrates the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in in Algeria’s prisons.
Benaoum’s lawyers and his mother were not able to visit him on 1st and 2nd October 2020. Prison authorities claimed to his family that Benaoum himself had refused visits and claim he is refusing medical care. According to his lawyers, however, this is inconsistent with Benaoum’s request not to stop visiting him, which he wrote in a hand-written letter on 4 September, and the activist only requested for his doctor, who did his first surgery in 2018, to be able to supervise the second surgery. In July, in another letter, Benaoum complained of isolation from the outside world and difficult prison conditions. The activist had not been able to receive any family visits from March to September 2020 due to restrictions related to COVID-19.
Benaoum had only been free for five months before his new arrest in December 2019. The activist was incarcerated between April 2018 and June 2019 on charges of "offending the President of the republic" and "reviving the wounds of the national tragedy" under article 46 of the Law on Peace and National Reconciliation of 2006, which prohibits publications about the Algerian civil war. He was conditionally released following a request from his lawyers, 10 months before the end of his sentence. In 2013, Benaoum had also been the subject of two communications from UN Special Procedures in relation to arbitrary arrests and excessive use of force.
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
- CGATA (General Autonomous Confederation of Workers in Algeria)
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- Riposte Internationale
- SNAPAP (Autonomous Union of Public Administration Personnel)
- SESS (Solidarity Union of Higher Education Teachers)
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Algeria: Free Amazigh and Hirak activist in prison for exercising his freedom of opinion
On 11 November, the court of Khenchela (eastern Algeria) is expected to hear activist Yacine Mebarki's appeal, following his sentencing on 8 October to 10 years in prison and a heavy fine of 10 million dinars (about 77,611.55 USD) – the most severe sentence ever handed to an activist for his online speech.
Algerian authorities should release Yacine Mebarki and drop unfounded charges related to his online publications and other charges that stem from the legitimate exercise of his freedom of speech and conscience, said the undersigned organisations. Authorities should put an end to criminal investigations and prosecutions against individuals for peacefully expressing their views, including views which may be critical of religious teachings and state officials.
Yacine Mebarki is a farmer from the town of Khenchela, known for his participation in the Hirak popular protest movement demanding radical political change in Algeria, and his engagement in the defense of Amazigh rights.
Police in Khenchela arrested Yacine Mebarki on 30 September, after a search of his home during which they discovered an old Quran belonging to Mebarki’s grand-father, which had a torn page, as well as two empty bullets. According to the activist’s lawyer, the bullets are the remains of old traditional celebrations involving gun-firing, prevalent in the Khenchela region and which are now used for decorative purposes.
The prosecutor of the Khenchela First Instance Court prosecuted Mebarki on the basis of social media publications, including a Facebook post from 17 February in which he appears to criticize Egyptian Salafi scholar Abu Ishaq al-Heweny for calling for “jihad” against countries to take their “money, their children and their women”, as well as for the torn Quran and the bullets found in his house. During the trial, the judge also mentioned a Facebook post from 12 September in which Mebarki appeared to mock Algerian Minister of Justice Belkacem Zeghmati.
Mebarki was sentenced on 8 October to ten years in prison for "offense against the precepts of Islam" (Article 144bis 2 of the Penal Code); “profanation of the Sacred Book” (Article 160 of the Penal Code); “inciting to discrimination” (Article 295bis); “inciting a Muslim to convert to another religion” and “distribution of documents intended to undermine the faith of a Muslim” (Article 11 par. 1 and 2 of ordinance 06-03 setting the conditions and rules for the exercise of religions other than Islam). In addition, he was sentenced for “possession of war material without authorization” (Article 31 of ordinance 97-06 relating to war material, arms and ammunition), based on the discovery of the two bullets.
The above charges related to the activist’s freedom of speech and conscience are in violation of Algeria’s Constitution (article 42) and international human rights law, notably Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Algeria. In an authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR from 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted that “the prohibition of displays of disrespect for a religion or any other belief system, including anti-blasphemy laws, is not compatible with the Covenant”. In October 2017, UN Experts also urged States “that still have blasphemy laws to repeal them because of their stifling impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and on the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion”.
This development is especially worrying as in recent months, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities have accelerated the arbitrary prosecution of peaceful activists for expressing their opinion and journalists. As of 9 November and according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), a local group monitoring Hirak trials, there are 87 prisoners of conscience in Algeria.
- Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
- CGATA (General Autonomous Confederation of Workers in Algeria)
- SNAPAP (Autonomous Union of Public Administration Personnel)
Alpha Condé wants a third term in Guinea. The AU must stop him
By David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead
President Ramaphosa and the AU have a crucial role in aiding the continuation of Guinea's democracy. Guinea’s nascent democracy hangs in the balance as current President Alpha Condé’s resolve to defy the constitution and stand for a third term in office threatens to plunge the country into violence. Under the current constitution, President Conde is only allowed to serve two five-year terms. The only way he can change the presidential limit is through a new constitution, which requires a referendum.
Read on: The Africa Report
Angola decriminalises homosexuality
Angola has officially decriminalised same-sex relationships and prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. LGBTQI+ advocacy lead for CIVICUS, Mawethu Nkosana spoke with eNCA's Sally Burdett on Angola's repeal of Anti-gay law.
ANGOLA: ‘Chances for real democracy in Angola are quite low’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential and National Assembly election in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment. MBAKITA is a civil society organisation based in Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, it defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.
What was the political climate in the run-up to the recent election in Angola?
The political climate was veryunfavourable, not at all conducive to a free and fair election. Angola was alreadycharacterised by heavy restrictions on civic space, and this worsened in the run-up to the 24 August election.
Civic space has been long marked by persecution, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, slander, defamation, censorship, intolerance and ordered killings. Protests are often banned and frequently repressed, sometimes with lethal violence.
Restrictions tightened before the election and were maintained during the voting and in the aftermath, to prevent protests at suspected fraud. Rapid Intervention Police, State Secret Information Services, Public Order Police, Migration and Foreigners Services, Border Guard Police, Criminal Investigation Services and the Attorney General's Office were all deployed in the streets of Angola’s 18 provinces.
ANGOLA: ‘Much effort was put into excluding people from the electoral process’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent Angolan election and its aftermath with Catarina Antunes Gomes and Cesaltina Abreu from the Social Sciences and Humanities Laboratory of the Catholic University of Angola (LAB). LAB works closely with Civic Movement Mudei (‘I changed’ in Portuguese), a movement of multiple civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for democratic change in Angola. It campaigns for voting rights and fair conditions of electoral competition, including transparent funding, equitable media coverage and citizen monitoring of election processes.
What kinds of civic space restrictions did Angolan civil society encounter during the election?
Civil society has faced many constraints before, during and after the election. Prior to the election, there was a partial review of the constitution that was done without any consultation and did not follow the recommendations of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The organic law on general elections was also amended without the participation of civil society or the political opposition, and it resulted in reduced electoral transparency. Key stakeholders were denied a platform to be part of the process.
A few months before the election, the government also decided to change Angola’s political and administrative division, with potential impact on the drawing of electoral districts. Although it did not follow through with this reform, this caused great confusion and gave rise to suspicions about the intentions of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the credibility of the election.
In 2021 President João Lourenço appointed Laurinda Cardoso, a member of the MPLA’s political bureau, as chief judge of the Constitutional Court. Civil society also raised concerns about the appointment and swearing in of Manuel Pereira da Silva as the new president of the National Electoral Commission. But our voices have been overlooked during the whole process.
The media situation has also been very precarious. Since the start of the electoral process, state intervention has increased, even in private media. Mudei monitored the media coverage of various parties and candidates from May until July and found that both public and private media had become instruments of propaganda, undermining the right to freedom of information and free choice.
On 6 July, just as the electoral campaign was about to begin, a new law was proposed to prohibit surveys and posts revealing voting choices. Instead of ensuring people were fully included in the electoral process, much effort was put into excluding them.
As a result, the level of transparency and fairness of the 24 August election has been dubious to say the least. It has been questioned by civil society through many public statements. The organisations we work with, Mudei and LAB, have produced a statementindicating they do not consider the elections to have been transparent, fair and free.
What do you think contributed to low voter turnout?
There were probably many reasons why fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls, but we believe major ones were disorganisation, fear and lack of trust.
The whole process was badly organised. In September 2021 there was an ‘unofficial electoral registration’ period, which is really a process of connecting databases to determine who is eligible to vote, but it was not made clear to people what this was about. Most people were confused about what the law said on residency and voting. The process was marked by lack of clarity and irregularities. Everything seemed too complicated so many lost interest. Many people were excluded as a result.
People were also afraid. The electoral campaign should be a time when candidates share their ideas with us, debate their parties’ proposals and tell us their thoughts about Angola’s future. But this was not what happened. The ruling party had a strong negative discourse, treating the other parties as enemies rather than adversaries. They didn’t present any ideas on how to make the country progress and what they published as their political programme was of very low quality.
Staying away from the polls can also be interpreted as a form of protest. We have done a lot of comparative electoral analysis and found that protest voting has increased in Angola through the years. This is the result of people’s complete lack of faith in political institutions, given their limited democratic character and lack of transparency. This year the protest vote rose even further.
How has the Angolan government reacted to civil society’s criticisms of electoral irregularities?
The government has responded with repression. There are two situations that we would like to share with CIVICUS and other international allies so they can help us by providing visibility, pressuring human rights international bodies and offering support in the form of capacity-building and funding for human rights activists and social movements in Angola.
The first situation concerns Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, a CSO that promotes the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the province of Cuando Cubango in southern Angola. Pascoal has expressed concerns about the election, including in an interview with CIVICUS last year. This made him a target. He was put under surveillance and has recently requested our help to evacuate his family to Luanda, Angola’s capital, because he has been threatened and is afraid for their safety.
The second situation concerns several members of Mudei, including its coordinator, who has been threatened repeatedly. Another of our colleagues, who was an independent candidate, has been mentioned in aggressive articles and social media posts along with an official from the European Union delegation in Luanda. They are attacked as part of a supposed subversive conspiracy involving powerful international interests aiming at destabilising Angola.
The feeling of oppression has been increasing. The Angolan army has been put on high alert, allegedly to prevent attacks. But how would unarmed civilians be able to attack them? That is clearly an excuse; their presence is threatening and intimidating. We urge the international community to publicly denounce what our government is doing to people and act to protect civil society activists who continue to work regardless and face threats and violence as a result.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ANGOLA: ‘The new NGO Law is just a way of legalising the government’s arrogance and excesses’
CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on the work of Angolan civil society with Godinho Cristóvão, a jurist, human rights defender and executive director of the association Movimento de Defensores de Direitos Humanos de Angola (Movement of Human Rights Defenders of Angola, KUTAKESA).
KUTAKESA is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the rights and protection of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Angola, particularly those active in more vulnerable areas, working on more sensitive issues and from historically excluded groups.
What are the current conditions for civil society in Angola?
Angolan CSOs work in a climate of suspicion and uncertainty, despite the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of Angola enshrines a catalogue of citizens’ fundamental rights, freedoms and guarantees.
The Angolan authorities should have aligned themselves with the democratic rule of law and respected the work of CSOs and HRDs. Instead, there has been an increase in threats, harassment and illegal arrests of HRDs who denounce or hold peaceful demonstrations against acts of bad governance and violations of citizens’ rights and freedoms. There have been clear setbacks with regard to the guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution, as well as the rights set out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties Angola has ratified.
How is the government targeting civil society with restrictive legislation?
The attacks on civil society are totally uncalled for. On 25 May, the Angolan National Assembly passed a draft NGO Statute, despite severe criticism from CSOs, which have stated that it limits freedom of association and gives the state excessive powers to interfere with CSO activities.
The government targets civil society with legislation that is meant for terrorists and money launderers, though it has never been proven in any court that a CSO has committed an act of terrorism in Angola. On the contrary, the rationale of this legislation constitutes institutional terrorism, the target of which are CSOs.
In Angola we all know who the corrupt are, and which party feeds corruption and money laundering. And as far as we know, CSOs are not part of that group. Funders of Angolan CSOs are all clearly identified, and the transfer of funds goes through national banking institutions and a rigorous compliance process. It is also worth remembering that many CSO funders are the same ones that fund government projects.
How does the new restrictive law compare with the 2015 decree that was declared unconstitutional?
In general, the content and spirit of Presidential Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs are the same as those of the new NGO Statute Law. By way of example, the rights and duties chapter of the previous regulation, later declared unconstitutional, was retained with only minimal changes in wording that in no way alter its content and its controlling and repressive spirit.
Additionally, the decree that was found unconstitutional provided for an administrative body under the tutelage of the Angolan executive – called IMPROCAC – with the power to monitor and control CSO actions. The recently approved draft NGO Statute Law provides for a similar body with the same attributions as the old IMPROCAC.
In other words, this is a new attempt to impose similar restrictions, but it is more serious since its instrument is no longer a presidential decree but a law. This means that it is no longer only the executive that is attacking the principles of autonomy and freedom of association provided for in article 48 of the constitution, but Congress as well, in which the president’s party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), has a majority. It is worth remembering that it was the MPLA majority that approved the 2010 constitution which it is now violating by passing the NGO Statute Law.
How is civil society, including KUTAKESA, reacting to the proposed law?
CSOs, at least the most active ones, are not looking favourably on the approval of this law, given the threats it represents in terms of closing off civic space in Angola.
We are taking joint action to prevent the final approval of this law and its entry into force. From the point of view of legal certainty and security, the courts should be aligned with the principle of jurisprudential precedent. Since they submitted the presidential decree to a review of unconstitutionality and declared it unconstitutional, they should now follow suit, given that the new law contains the same irregularities.
All national organisations took a joint position to call on parliament to take off the agenda the law now approved. This was done through information exchange meetings with opposition parties represented in parliament. At the same time we made public statements alerting the public about the dangers for freedom of association if the law was approved, and we made urgent appeals to the special rapporteurs of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations (UN) who have a mandate on freedom of association and HRDs to alert the Angolan government about the consequences the law will have on respect for human rights.
On KUTAKESA’s part, urgent appeals were made to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Remy Ngoy Lumbu, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor.
Do you see the new law as part of a wider trend to restrict civic space?
Yes of course, but it is also important to note that the repression of peaceful and legal demonstrations predates the approval of this law. Government mismanagement and endemic corruption have been some of the main causes of the deteriorating social, economic and family conditions for the majority of the population, leading to growing protests and mass demonstrations, which have often been repressed. The approval of this law is just another means of repression and of legalising the arrogance and excesses of the government and its agents, particularly the national police.
While the law is not necessarily intended as a response to the ongoing protests, given that the attempt to get it passed dates back to 2015, it is likely to be used as another tool to crack down on the protests.
Now, if the government has good sense and makes a strategic reading of the current political and social context of Angola, it could stop the process of approval of the law or, if it is too late for that, the president could refuse to promulgate it, taking the appeals of civil society into consideration. The law’s approval would certainly increase the number of protests and demonstrations.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with KUTAKESA through theirwebsite.
ANGOLA: ‘The untrue government narrative reveals an aversion to civil society denouncing malpractice’
CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on civil society in Angola with Emilio José Manuel, focal point for Angola of the Lusophone Platform for Human Rights and founding member of the Working Group for Human Rights Monitoring in Angola (GTMDH).
The GTMDH is a platform of civil society organisations (CSOs) that works to promote and defend human rights and strives for social justice within the framework of the Angolan constitution and other current laws, as well as international conventions and treaties.
What are the conditions for civil society in Angola?
Although there is currently no direct or indirect interference in the work of civil society in Angola, the authorities’ discourse is that, because they receive funding from international institutions, CSOs defend and represent foreign interests.
Meanwhile there are many joint actions between public institutions and CSOs. For example, once a year the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights organises a forum with CSOs where the GTMDH presents its public position on human rights and provides information on the granting of registration certificates, the legal documents that the Angolan state gives to each CSO attesting that it is legally registered and can operate in the country.
Why is the government targeting CSOs with legislation aimed at terrorists and money launderers?
According to the report supporting the draft law, the president considers that he has ‘encountered constraints and difficulties in ensuring compliance with international obligations assumed by the Angolan Government in the area of money laundering and the financing of terrorism’. Hence the need to control the sources and destination of CSO funds.
This narrative of the Angolan government is untrue and clearly demonstrates its aversion to the role of CSOs in monitoring and denouncing government malpractice. Financial support for the projects of CSOs and human rights defenders comes from well-identified organisations and goes through banking institutions with strict compliance rules – and some of these funders are the same ones that support government projects.
On 26 May, the draft NGO Statute Law was passed in general by the Angolan National Assembly, ignoring severe criticism from civil society, which has made clear that it limits the right of association and gives the executive excessive powers to interfere in CSO activities.
The situation is very alarming because the draft law imposes a 120-day period for existing CSOs to make their statutes conform with the law, otherwise they will be outlawed outright without a judicial decision. Article 2 of the draft law requires existing CSOs to conform with the new provisions, under penalty of having their statutes and registrations revoked. This is a violation of the principle of legality and access to justice guaranteed by the Angolan constitution. The principle of legality requires that the law should be clearly articulated and known in advance and should not be applied retroactively.
How has civil society reacted to the draft law?
Civil society analysed the draft law and reacted against it. In collaboration with the GTMDH coordinator, my role as legal officer was to prepare petitions, public position papers and communications with the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and to engage with regional and international partners to amplify the voices of Angolan civil society.
We requested a technical opinion from UN Special Rapporteur Clément Voule and drafted a public civil society position on the bill explaining why it violates freedoms of association, which we presented publicly at a press conference.
We advocated with opposition parties represented in parliament and made contacts with the Angolan Bar Association to file, within the scope of our constitutional prerogatives, the appropriate action for an assessment of the unconstitutionality of the draft law. The day before the general approval of the draft law, we sent a public petition to the National Assembly demanding that it not approve it.
Our next action will be to send a letter to the presidents of some key countries about the closure of civic space in Angola and increasing controls over CSOs, including international CSOs.
Protests are also taking place against the proposed NGO Statute Law, which have converged with protests against measures that have increased fuel prices and a crackdown on street vendors.
Do you see this bill as part of a wider trend of restricting civic space?
The recent repression of demonstrations, arrests of activists and attacks on protesters, including women, is an indicator that civic space is being severely restricted. The use of force by the national police has resulted in deaths without any appropriate process to hold to account and punish police officers involved in cases of violence, torture and killings.
Our country depends on importing food staples and other goods from abroad. Right now the prices of food, other goods and services have increased. Street vendors are a group that some CSOs work with, particularly those dedicated to empowering women to establish small businesses. Some organisations provide micro credits to street vendors. Although the street vendors’ movement has a life of its own, it is CSOs and their lawyers who have provided them with free legal aid.
There is a current of national solidarity, taking into account that the law does not explicitly say it will regulate all initiatives by citizens who wish to create an association. My personal opinion is that everyone feels that control will go further. The draft NGO Statute Law lacks a clear definition of what a ‘non-governmental organisation’ is. It also includes vague provisions that need to be better fleshed out to enable the proper interpretation of the law. For example, it is difficult to understand the meaning and normative scope of article 19(1)(d), which imposes a ‘duty on NGOs to refrain from practices and actions that are subversive or liable to be confused with them’. The unanswered question here is how subversive actions are to be defined in the context of the law.
How does the new draft law compare with the 2015 decree that was deemed unconstitutional?
According to the analysis we’ve made, the arguments and contents are the same as in Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs. We have the new role of counselling judges in the Constitutional Court. The situation in the Supreme Court indicates that we have a crisis in the judiciary. So it is uncertain whether this time the judicial decision will be in favour of CSOs. The present draft law establishes rules to control, restrict, approve, authorise and suspend the activities of CSOs, including CSO extinction by an administrative entity to be determined by the president as holder of the executive power, which violates the principle of freedom of association as provided in article 48 of the constitution.
Do you view the draft NGO Statute Law as part of a regional or global trend?
After having participated in sessions of the NGO Forum and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, I noted a tendency to restrict civic space throughout Africa. As part of the civil society strategy, we held meetings with activists from Mozambique to share experiences and assemble regional, continental and international strategies. It is worth remembering that various activists, whether linked to CSOs or not, are directly involved in campaigns and waves of protest to try to ensure that the draft law is not given final approval by parliament and promulgated by the president.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Contact GTMDH through itswebsite.
ANGOLA: “El partido en el poder ve a las elecciones locales como una amenaza”
Acceda a la entrevista original en portugués aquí
CIVICUS conversa acerca de la situación en Angola con Pascoal Baptistiny, Director Ejecutivo de MBAKITA - Misión Benéfica Agrícola de Kubango, Inclusión de Tecnologías y Medio Ambiente, una organización de la sociedad civil con sede en la provincia de Cuando Cubango, en el sur de Angola. Fundada en 2002, MBAKITA defiende los derechos de los pueblos indígenas y las comunidades tradicionales, denuncia la discriminación que padecen y la expropiación de sus tierras, y promueve una sociedad más justa, democrática, participativa, tolerante, solidaria, sana y humana.
¿Cuál es el estado del espacio cívico en Angola, y cuáles son las principales limitaciones que enfrentan los activistas angoleños?
La represión del espacio cívico en Angola es uno de los mayores retos a los que se enfrenta la sociedad civil angoleña en la actualidad. Los activistas sufren detenciones arbitrarias e ilegales, torturas y malos tratos, secuestros, asesinatos, acoso y desapariciones por parte de las fuerzas gubernamentales, la policía y los servicios de inteligencia del Estado. Esta represión ha hecho que muchos angoleños tengan cuidado con lo que dicen en público. Las pocas organizaciones que defienden los derechos humanos en Angola a menudo lo hacen asumiendo grandes riesgos personales y familiares.
¿Podría contarnos sobre las restricciones que usted y sus colegas enfrentaron en 2020?
En 2020, mis colegas de MBAKITA y yo enfrentamos obstáculos destinados a impedir, minimizar, interrumpir y revertir el impacto de las actividades legítimas de la organización, centradas en la crítica, la denuncia y la oposición a las violaciones de derechos y a las posiciones, políticas y acciones gubernamentales ineficaces.
Entre las diversas formas de restricción que experimentamos se cuentan las restricciones y cancelaciones arbitrarias de manifestaciones y reuniones; la vigilancia; las amenazas, la intimidación, las represalias y los castigos; las agresiones físicas; las campañas de difamación que presentan a los miembros de MBAKITA como “enemigos del Estado” y mercenarios al servicio de intereses extranjeros; el acoso judicial; las multas exorbitantes para la adquisición de medios de transporte; robos en nuestras oficinas y la sustracción de equipos informáticos; el registro y la confiscación de bienes; la destrucción de vehículos; la privación de empleo e ingresos; y la prohibición de viajar.
Además, 15 activistas fueron detenidos arbitrariamente y sometidos a malos tratos durante la campaña de prevención del COVID-19. El 1º de mayo mi residencia fue invadida y los guardias fueron atacados con gases lacrimógenos. El 16 de noviembre, dos activistas fueron violadas. Entre las víctimas fatales del año se cuentan tres de nuestros activistas y un manifestante.
¿Qué tipo de trabajo realiza MBAKITA? ¿Por qué cree que la organización ha sido atacada?
MBAKITA es una organización que defiende y promueve los derechos humanos. Trabajamos para promover, proteger y difundir los libertades y derechos humanos universalmente reconocidos, y especialmente los derechos a las libertades de reunión, asociación, manifestación pacífica, expresión y prensa, el derecho a la autodeterminación de los pueblos indígenas, los derechos a la tierra, a una alimentación adecuada, al agua potable y al medio ambiente, y la lucha contra la tortura y los malos tratos.
Cuestionamos las violaciones de los derechos civiles, políticos, económicos, sociales, culturales y medioambientales de las personas indígenas, étnicas, lingüísticas, LGBTQI+, con discapacidades y migrantes.
Mi organización utiliza medios pacíficos y no violentos en sus actividades. Sin embargo, hemos enfrentado riesgos incalculables como consecuencia de nuestro trabajo de derechos humanos en las provincias del sur de Angola.
MBAKITA es atacada sistemáticamente por varias razones. Primero, porque en 2018 denunció la muerte de cuatro niños durante la Operación Transparencia, una acción contra el tráfico de diamantes y inmigrantes indocumentados llevada a cabo por la policía y las fuerzas armadas angoleñas en el municipio de Mavinga, provincia de Cuando Cubango. En segundo lugar, porque en 2019 denunció el desvío de fondos destinados a apoyar a las víctimas de la sequía en las provincias del sur de Angola por parte de los gobiernos provinciales. Tercero, porque en abril de 2019, dos activistas de la organización denunciaron la apropiación ilegal de tierras por parte de empresarios políticos -generales, diputados y gobernadores- en territorios pertenecientes a las minorías indígenas San y Kuepe y utilizados para la caza, pesca y recolección de frutos silvestres, que constituyen la dieta de estas poblaciones. Cuarto, porque en febrero de 2020 MBAKITA denunció el desvío de fondos destinados a la compra de material de bioseguridad para la prevención del COVID-19 y el desvío de alimentos destinados al Programa de Asistencia a la Canasta Básica para Grupos Vulnerables. En quinto lugar, porque participamos y llevamos a cabo una campaña de sensibilización sobre el COVID-19, que incluyó la distribución de material de bioseguridad adquirido con fondos de MISEREOR-Alemania. Y, finalmente, porque participamos en todas las manifestaciones realizadas por la sociedad civil angoleña, incluida la más reciente, que tuvo lugar el 9 de enero de 2021, centradas en la lucha contra la corrupción y la exigencia de elecciones locales bajo el lema “Elecciones locales ya, ¡45 años en el poder es mucho!” y del cumplimiento de las promesas electorales de 500.000 puestos de trabajo, la reducción del costo de vida para las familias y la inclusión socioeconómica de las minorías indígenas, entre otras.
¿Por qué se cancelaron las elecciones previstas para 2020?
Por un lado, por la pandemia de COVID-19. Pero al margen de esta pandemia mortal, el gobierno nunca ha estado interesado en celebrar elecciones locales en 2020. El partido en el poder, el Movimiento Popular para la Liberación de Angola (MPLA), ve a las elecciones locales como una amenaza para el poder central y teme perder el control del poder. Tiene miedo de introducir un elemento de control de los votantes sobre los gobiernos locales, es decir, de participación y control de la ciudadanía sobre la gestión de los fondos públicos. El gobierno piensa que el pueblo despertará a la idea del Estado democrático y el Estado de derecho, es decir, que mucha gente ganará conciencia de sus derechos y deberes. Esto atentaría contra la intención del MPLA, que es perpetuarse en el poder.
La promesa de la democracia local en Angola ha sido un fracaso. A tres años de gobierno, el presidente João Lourenço no ha cumplido ni el 10% de sus promesas electorales, dejando al 90% de los angoleños en estado de total escepticismo.
En Angola, el partido que está en el poder desde hace más de 45 años no tolera a las personas libres. Hoy en día, los y las defensoras de derechos humanos pierden puestos de trabajo, pierden el pan para sus hijos, pierden sus carreras e incluso pierden sus vidas si se atreven a ser libres, a desear la democracia y a ejercer la libertad.
¿Qué perspectivas hay de que la situación cambie en un futuro próximo?
Para que la situación cambie, la sociedad civil tiene mucho trabajo por hacer. Las acciones más importantes y urgentes son la adquisición de formación en seguridad individual, institucional y digital, el aprendizaje del idioma inglés, la obtención de estatus de observador ante la Comisión Africana de derechos humanos y de los pueblos, la observación y participación en manifestaciones y otros actos públicos, la incidencia y el cabildeo para la legalización de las organizaciones de derechos humanos, la realización de visitas a las cárceles, incluyendo entrevistas con los presos y la recopilación de pruebas de las torturas, malos tratos y condiciones penitenciarias, la observación de los juicios contra activistas en los tribunales inferiores, la recaudación de fondos para la sostenibilidad de las actividades de las personas defensoras de derechos humanos, y el monitoreo de las elecciones locales de 2021 y de las elecciones generales de 2022.
¿Qué tipo de apoyo necesitan los y las activistas angoleñas de parte de la sociedad civil internacional para poder continuar haciendo su trabajo?
Las necesidades son enormes y muy variadas. Los y las activistas necesitan urgentemente protección y seguridad, lo que incluye formación en análisis de riesgos, elaboración de planes de seguridad y formación en mecanismos internacionales y regionales de protección de los derechos humanos, así como técnicas para investigar, litigar, documentar, presentar peticiones y denunciar violaciones de los derechos humanos. En concreto, en MBAKITA nos gustaría recibir asistencia técnica para evaluar qué dispositivos de seguridad se podrían implementar para aumentar la protección física de la oficina de la organización y de mi residencia, así como apoyo financiero para la compra de dichos dispositivos, por ejemplo para la adquisición de un sistema de seguridad o una cámara de videovigilancia.
Los activistas agredidos, y especialmente los 15 activistas de MBAKITA que han sido víctimas directas de represión y tortura a manos de las fuerzas gubernamentales, también necesitan asistencia psicológica postraumática. La ayuda financiera nos ayudaría a pagar los honorarios de los abogados que trabajaron por la liberación de seis activistas que fueron encarcelados entre agosto y noviembre de 2020. También nos ayudaría a reponer el equipo de trabajo robado, sin el cual nuestra capacidad de trabajo se ha visto reducida: dos vehículos, ordenadores, tarjetas de memoria, cámara digital y videocámara.
Para los activistas amenazados de detención arbitraria, secuestro o asesinato, que no tienen otra opción que abandonar rápidamente el país o su región de origen, necesitamos apoyo para el transporte y la estadía. Nuestros activistas también se beneficiarían de intercambios de experiencias, conocimientos y buenas prácticas, para reforzar sus conocimientos sobre seguridad digital, y para formarse en técnicas periodísticas y audiovisuales y en el aprendizaje del inglés.
Por último, el funcionamiento de las organizaciones y su sostenibilidad se beneficiarían de la obtención de apoyos para la instalación de servicios de internet y la creación de páginas web seguras, la adquisición de programas informáticos de gestión financiera y recursos para la contratación de personal estable, en condiciones de mantener a sus familias y dedicarse plenamente a la defensa de los derechos humanos.
ANGOLA: “The ruling party sees local elections as a threat”
View the original interview in Portuguese here
CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment, a civil society organisation based in the Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, MBAKITA defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.
What is the state of civic space in Angola, and what are the main constraints faced by Angolan activists?
The repression of civic space in Angola is one of the biggest challenges facing Angolan civil society today. Activists suffer arbitrary and illegal arrests, torture and ill-treatment, abductions, killings, harassment and disappearances by government forces, police and state intelligence services. This repression has made many Angolans careful about what they say in public. The few organisations that defend human rights in Angola often do so at great risk to the activists involved and their families.
Could you tell us about the restrictions you and your colleagues faced in 2020?
In 2020, my MBAKITA colleagues and I faced obstacles aimed at preventing, minimising, disrupting and reversing the impact of our organisation’s legitimate activities that focused on criticising, denouncing and opposing rights violations and ineffective government positions, policies and actions.
The various forms of restriction we experienced included arbitrary restrictions and the interruption of demonstrations and meetings; surveillance; threats, intimidation, reprisals and punishments; physical assaults; smear campaigns portraying MBAKITA members as ‘enemies of the state’ and mercenaries serving foreign interests; judicial harassment; exorbitant fines for the purchase of means of transport; burglary of our offices and theft of computer equipment; search and seizure of property; destruction of vehicles; the deprivation of employment and income; and travel bans.
In addition, 15 activists were arbitrarily detained and ill-treated during the COVID-19 prevention campaign. On 1 May my residence was invaded, and its guards were teargassed. On 16 November, two female activists were raped. Fatalities for the year included three of our activists and one protester.
What kind of work does MBAKITA do? Why do you think it has been targeted?
MBAKITA is an organisation that defends and promotes human rights. We work to promote, protect and disseminate universally recognised human rights and freedoms, and especially the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, the freedom of the press, the right to self-determination by Indigenous peoples, the rights to land, adequate food, clean water and the environment, and the fight against torture and ill-treatment.
We challenge violations of the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of Indigenous and migrant people, ethnic and linguistic minorities, LGBTQI+ people and people with disabilities.
My organisation uses peaceful and non-violent means in its activities. However, we have faced incalculable risks as a result of our human rights work in the southern provinces of Angola.
MBAKITA has been systematically attacked for several reasons. First, because in 2018 we denounced the death of four children during Operation Transparency, an action against diamond trafficking and undocumented migrants carried out by the Angolan police and armed forces in the municipality of Mavinga, in the Cuando Cubango province. Second, because in 2019 we denounced the diversion of funds intended to support drought victims in Angola’s southern provinces by provincial governments. Third, because in April 2019, two activists of the organisation denounced the illegal appropriation of land by political businesspeople – generals, legislators and governors – in territories belonging to the San and Kuepe Indigenous minorities and used for hunting, fishing and gathering wild fruits, which make up the diet of these groups. Fourth, because in February 2020 MBAKITA denounced the diversion of funds designated for the purchase of biosecurity products for the prevention of COVID-19 and the diversion of food destined for the Basic Food Basket Assistance Programme for Vulnerable Groups. Fifth, because we participated in and conducted an awareness-raising campaign on COVID-19, which included the distribution of biosecurity materials purchased with MISEREOR-Germany funds. And finally, because we participated in all demonstrations held by Angolan civil society, including the most recent one on 9 January 2021, focused on the fight against corruption and the demand for local elections, under the slogan ‘Local elections now, 45 years in power is too long!’ and for the fulfilment of various electoral promises, including those of 500,000 jobs, the reduction of the cost of living for families and the socio-economic inclusion of Indigenous minorities.
Why were the elections scheduled for 2020 cancelled?
For one thing, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But aside from this deadly pandemic, the government was never interested in holding local elections in 2020. The ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), sees local elections as a threat to central power and fears losing its grip on power. It fears introducing an element of voter control over local government, that is, citizen participation and control over the management of public funds. The government thinks that the people will wake up to the idea of the democratic state and the rule of law, and that many people will become aware of their rights and duties. This would run counter to the MPLA’s intention, which is to perpetuate itself in power.
The promise of local democracy in Angola has been a failure. Three years into his term in office, President João Lourenço has failed to deliver even 10 per cent of his electoral promises, leaving 90 per cent of Angolans in a state of total scepticism.
In Angola, the party that has been in power for more than 45 years does not tolerate free people. Today, human rights defenders lose their jobs, are unable to feed their children, lose their careers and even their lives if they dare to be free, to desire democracy and to exercise their freedom.
What are the prospects that the situation will change in the near future?
For the situation to change, civil society has a lot of work to do. The most important and urgent actions are acquiring training in individual, institutional and digital security, learning English, obtaining observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, observing and participating in demonstrations and other public events, advocating and lobbying for the legalisation of human rights organisations, conducting prison visits, including interviews with prisoners and gathering evidence of torture, ill-treatment and imprisonment conditions, observing trials of activists in the lower courts, fundraising for the sustainability of human rights defenders’ activities, and monitoring the 2021 local elections and the 2022 general elections.
What kind of support do Angolan activists need from international civil society to be able to continue their work?
Needs are enormous and varied. Activists urgently need protection and security, including training in risk analysis, security planning and international and regional human rights protection mechanisms, as well as skills in investigating, litigating, documenting, petitioning and reporting human rights violations. Specifically, MBAKITA would like to receive technical assistance to assess what security arrangements could be put in place to increase the physical protection of the organisation’s office and my residence, as well as financial support for the purchase of such arrangements, such as a security system or a video surveillance camera.
Assaulted activists, and especially the 15 MBAKITA activists who have been direct victims of repression and torture at the hands of government forces, also need post-traumatic psychological assistance. Financial assistance would help us pay the fees of the lawyers who worked for the release of six activists who were imprisoned between August and November 2020. It would also help us replace stolen work equipment, without which our ability to work has been reduced, including two vehicles, computers, memory cards, a digital camera and a camcorder.
In the case of activists threatened with arbitrary detention, kidnapping or assassination, who have no choice but to leave the country or their region of origin quickly, we need support for transportation and provisional accommodation. Our activists would also benefit from exchanges of experience, knowledge and good practice, opportunities to strengthen their knowledge of digital security, training in journalistic and audio-visual techniques and the acquisition of English language skills.
Finally, the operation of organisations and their sustainability would be helped by obtaining support for the installation of internet services and the creation of secure websites, the acquisition of financial management software and resources to recruit permanent staff, so that staff members are able to support their families and fully dedicate themselves to the defence of human rights.