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Suspended jail sentence bolsters Angolan journalist's determination to carry on

Journalist Rafael Marques was sentenced in connection with "Blood Diamonds" book
Journalist Rafael Marques was sentenced in connection with "Blood Diamonds" book

A court in Angola has sentenced an award-winning Angolan journalist to a six-month suspended prison term. Rafael Marques was found guilty of "malicious denunciation" after writing a book about rights violations in the country’s diamond industry. The sentence has been suspended for two years, meaning that he may have to go to jail if he engages in behaviour deemed criminal by the state.

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 “It was a kangaroo court because I was convicted on grounds that I still don’t understand.” Marques said in a phone interview from Luanda.

Press freedom advocates were convinced that the case against Marques would collapse after most charges were dropped last week, but their hopes were dashed. A court in Luanda sentenced him for "malicious denunciation" and for defaming Angolan army generals in a book he published in Portugal in 2011, Diamantes de Sangue: Tortura e Corrupção em Angola (Blood Diamonds: Torture and Corruption in Angola).

“We were absolutely outraged,” railed Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, a British-based freedom of expression group. “Rafael [...] is without doubt one of the most courageous people I have met and is almost single-handedly exposing corruption in the government and in the diamond industry in Angola.”

Marques believes most charges he was facing were dropped to prevent the generals from testifying. Once in court, he speculated, the officers could have been questioned by the defense. His lawyer could also have entered new evidence and called on new witnesses.

“It’s ridiculous because the question that the prosecution based its accusation on -- and that the judge also used -- is whether I saw the generals shooting someone. I never wrote that. I never said that. So on what basis have I been convicted?”

In his book, Marques accuses army officiers of being behind torture and killings committed by their men and private guards hired to protect diamond concessions in the northeastern Lundas region.

A key defence witness, Linda Moises da Rosa, told AFP on the sidelines of a recent court hearing: "I lost two sons -- a year apart -- killed by members of the security forces while they were looking for diamonds. Even today, they [security forces] continue to kill diamond diggers saying that you should not touch the stones because they belong to the government."

In March, just days before his trial started, Marques received a Freedom of Expression Award from Index on Censorship.

“I think it’s a very dark time for freedom of expression in Angola,” observed Ginsberg, the group’s executive chief. “[Rafael] has been spared the jail sentence but [...] if he puts a foot wrong, he might find himself in jail. Remember that he’s been jailed before. So he has to tread extremely carefully."

The implications for free expression and for free media are obvious, according to Bárbara Bulhosa, Marques’s publisher. The sentence is “a warning to all those who stand up to the powerful in Angola,” she told Expresso, a Lisbon daily newspaper.

Rights groups are determined to continue lobbying the Angola government. Over 50 signatories – including Index on Censorship, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international NGOs – have already written to Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos to demand urgent action on Marques’s case.

Western nations, however, have been less than vocal about his detention because they fear that they may jeopardise their access to Angola’s oil-rich market, argues Oxford University Associate Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira.

“None of the major embassies in Luanda have made much of a fuss about what’s been going on for months, neither have their home governments,” he explained. “It’s obvious that Angola – even in the context of a downturn in the economy on account of the oil prices – is a great business opportunity."

Marques told RFI the sentence has bolstered his resolve and his determination to continue.

“It’s always been very risky but let me tell you: I’m not the one who’s going to leave this country to live in exile," he said. "They’re the ones who should do it. It’s important that – especially here in Africa – that good guys should not be running away to enable these individuals who have been wrecking the country, who have been causing so much damage, destroying so many lives, to continue to reign with impunity.”

Marques who has also been fined 50 mil kwanzas (415 euros) is set to appeal the sentence.

The court also ordered him to withdraw the book from the market, including from the Internet, and not to republish or translate it.

His lawyer, David Mendes, says Marques might ignore the order not to re-issue the book
An Italian edition is on the cards, according to Tinta de China publishing house.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011

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