The International Day of Democracy, celebrated on September 15th, provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world. Democracy is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. These are well-known facts to Angolan journalist Rafael Marques.
Angola is a country currently facing many challenges, both economic and social. Touted by the Economist as the ‘fastest growing economy in the world’ in 2011, the global drop in oil prices has significantly reduced the availability of government funds for social services, public salaries, and the import of goods and services. Basic medical services and health systems have also been negatively impacted, which impeded the response to the Yellow Fever epidemic and exacerbated a resurgence of malaria. Recent high-profile legal cases, such as the prosecution of the ‘15+2’ youth activists, have focused an international spotlight on the challenges Angola faces in maintaining space for freedom of expression and association.
A developing advocacy community in Angola is seeking solutions to address Angola’s challenges, and aims to be part of the process by which the country’s direction and course are determined. Acclaimed Angolan human rights champion Rafael Marques is among the most well-known of these advocates. He has successfully raised global awareness and sparked international and domestic dialogue on critical human rights and corruption issues in Angola through his writing, public appearances, travel abroad, and advocacy. His high-profile work has brought him not only international visibility and praise, but also intense domestic scrutiny by Angolan officials. Rafael was first imprisoned in 1999, after calling President Dos Santos a dictator in an article titled “The Lipstick of Dictatorship.” In March 2015, he was convicted for libel and served a suspended jail term for his book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, which detailed alleged corruption and abuse by state officials and military generals in the diamond mining industry.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rafael as part of our Human Rights Heroes podcast, where we discussed his motivations for tackling such difficult and challenging human rights issues in his country, and how his arrest and trials shaped his determination to continue his advocacy work. During our conversation, we discussed Rafael’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the “15+2” activists arrested, tried and convicted for “preparatory acts of rebellion” after what many characterized as a peaceful series of political gatherings. Rafael’s was one of a handful of influential voices calling for a fair trial.
In June 2016, the Angolan Supreme Court granted the detainees’ habeas corpus petition and approved their conditional release from prison. The activists are free to move around Luanda, but they await a decision on their effort to appeal their convictions, which has yet to be overturned. While the “15+2” remain in legal limbo, their harsh initial sentences are likely to have had a chilling effect on the free exercise of expression and peaceful assembly in Angola.
In spite of ongoing challenges, Rafael and other advocates continue to highlight the need for more space for civil society in Angola, including through Rafael’s website, MakaAngola, which examines issues of democracy, corruption, and alleged abuses by security forces in Angola. It is essential that independent voices such as Rafael’s continue to push for democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
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