Seventeen Angolan activists are scheduled to go on trial on November 16. They are accused of conspiring to rebel against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for 36 years.
Laurinda Gouveia is one of the activists set to go to trial. She and a group of friends used to meet every Saturday at a bookstore in the heart of the Angolan capital, Luanda. There they liked to discuss one particular book: Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy," a tutorial written in 1993 that lists 198 methods of nonviolent resistance.
"We talked about the peaceful struggle described by Gene Sharp in his book,” Gouveia told Deutsche Welle. “The reason we chose to study Gene Sharp was that, while we had organized anti-establishment activities before, we felt we needed to learn from other people's experience," she said.
One Saturday last June, police officers arrived at the bookstore. Laurinda wasn't there, but 13 of her friends were. They were arrested on the spot. Laurinda and several others were indicted later.
All 17 activists are due to appear in court on Monday on charges of conspiring to rebel against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
According to Dos Santos‘s special envoy for political issues, Ambassador Antonio Luvualu de Carvalho, the activists were up to much more than just reading a 'subversive' book.
"They were mobilizing people and teaching them how to topple a government, based on Sharp's book,” Carvalho said. "They planned to use children, women and the elderly. They wanted them to clash with security forces, so that security forces would kill them. They estimated that between 20 and 25 people would die. The purpose was to generate worldwide uproar and encourage Western countries, especially NATO members, to bomb Angola."
Gouveia said that it is inconceivable that a group of 17 young activists with no weapons should plan something like that. "We didn't talk about using children, women or elderly people. We never prepared anything," she said.
Since the arrests at the bookstore, hundreds of people have taken to the streets at home and abroad to call for more freedom of expression in Angola.
Angolan security forces dispersed several protests in support of the activists saying they were illegal. In August, the mothers of some of the young detainees took to the streets of Luanda and were attacked and bitten by police dogs. The protests extended to Berlin, Brussels and Lisbon. In crisis-hit Portugal, which has become a favorite business destination for the Angolan elite, vigils have been taking place on a weekly basis.
By the end of October, human rights group Amnesty International had collected more than 38,000 signatures for a petition calling for the immediate release of the activists. Among them is Luaty Beirao, who went on a hunger strike for 36 days, in protest against the length of time he and the others had been held in pre-trial detention. That corresponded to one day of hunger strike for each year that President Dos Santos has been in power.
"This is just another case in a long history of punishing dissent in Angola, and it has worsened in recent months," said Teresa Pina, the head of Amnesty International in Portugal. "A state which lets its citizens endanger their own lives is a state willing to do anything."
Hunger strikes or fasts are listed in Gene Sharp's book "From Dictatorship to Democracy" as method number 159 of nonviolent protest. Group or mass petitions are method number six. Protest meetings are number 48. Not that Angolan authorities would know, says Rafael Marques, an Angolan journalist and human rights activist who has been one of the most vocal critics of the trial against the 17 activists. He says it's politically motivated.
"The Angolan regime doesn't fear Gene Sharp's book. I don't think they have even read it,” he said. “They also didn't read the manual by activist Domingos da Cruz, which adapts Sharp's theories to the Angolan reality and is part of what the charges are based on. It seems that the Angolan regime urgently needs to find an enemy to distract citizens from society's main problems."