Rafael Marques de Morais. Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship. All rights reserved.Mass graves of miners who were buried alive, women with their eyes and genitals cut out of their bodies: these stories were just part of the exposé into crimes surrounding the Angola diamond industry that journalist Rafael Marques de Morais has tried to bring to world attention. Yet after an absurd defamation trial, during which his key witnesses were not allowed to give evidence, Marques has now been hit with a sentence that appears to be trying to silence him.
Marques’ case is certainly out of the ordinary. A lone warrior battling against the system and operating an anti-corruption news site from his kitchen in Luanda, he is currently working on his appeal after receiving a six-month suspended sentence on 28 May. The injustice of this unexpected conviction, which came days after the court had indicated charges had been dropped, has been reported on by a scattering of journalists around the world. But more needs to be done.
Index on Censorship has called for the Angolan government to drop all charges against Marques, and has sent an open letter to Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos. Signatories range from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, author Neil Gaiman and technology entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, to those who have experienced censorship themselves, including Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat and Azerbaijani journalist Idrak Abbasov.
Anyone who has met Marques knows that he is an extraordinary character. At Index on Censorship, we had the honour to host him in London for a week when he came to pick up one of our Freedom of Expression Awards in March. This was one week before his trial commenced, yet he remained calm, resolute and an inspiration to all he met. I remember catching a colleague’s eye as he gave a phone interview to one of the many journalists who called wanting to hear his story. “I’m proud to go back and fight this,” he said. “If they jail me, at least I can report on the jails.” Even in Index’s line of work, this is not something you hear every day.
Since then, even for those who’ve been following his case closely, it’s been hard to keep up. On the first day in court, on 24 March, he was hit by 15 new charges. Then his case was adjourned for a month. He had the prospect of reconciliation dangled before him and, after much negotiation, snatched away. His website was brought down and his computer hacked. There was what appeared to be a sudden dismissal, as all sides seemed to come to an agreement. There followed a misguided weekend of celebration, before, suddenly, the case was back on and he was sentenced – and all without the chance to defend himself properly or present witnesses.
The whole process of his case has been as nonsensical and maddening as it sounds; a trial by “a kangaroo court”, as Marques has called it. Ultimately, his statement, after the apparent settlement, was taken as an admission of guilt, which resulted in the public prosecutor handing down a six-month suspended sentence. So far he has escaped being locked up, but there is a two-year term on the sentence, meaning that if he does anything “criminal” during this period, the jail sentence is immediately applied. It’s a warning set to constantly hang over him, for every word he writes.
What constitutes 'criminal' in Angola? It’s hard to know. Marques’ book detailed allegations of more than 500 cases of torture and 100 killings carried out by Angolan soldiers and private mining company guards. Yet, somehow, Marques became the bad guy. As if he saw this coming (and having been jailed before for calling the president a dictator), Marques made the first move: by first raising a criminal complaint against nine generals and company directors in Angola. He called for a full investigation into alleged abuses. The generals and their business associates then filed a lawsuit against Marques and his publisher for libel in Portugal. When that fell apart, they took it back to Angola.
In the end, Marques was charged, not for defamation, but for one of the surprise charges added later: malicious prosecution. Malicious prosecution refers to deliberate falsification of facts. “The public prosecutor put words in my mouth. He said that I had apologised, and had admitted to have written falsehoods,” Marques told Index last week, incensed about being “tricked”. As one legal expert told us, one of the main complaints was that Marques should have conducted a full personal investigation before calling for a state investigation.
You can read Marques’ book, in English and Portuguese, on his publisher’s website, a brave independent outfit called Tinta-da-China, based in Lisbon. It’s a shocking read. Marques writes about having reams of investigation documents seized at the airport. He writes about appalling crimes against women; their eyes and genitals cut out of their murdered bodies as prospectors deem them to be talismans. During the trial, one of his key defence witnesses, Linda Moises da Rosa, never got the chance to speak about her two sons who, she says, were killed by security forces as they searched for diamonds.
Angola took over the presidency of the Kimberley Process in November 2014, and will be hosting its annual meeting in June. The United Nations-initiated certification project was designed to prevent ‘conflict diamonds’ entering the mainstream market. Angola’s civil war may be over, but there is still concern that human-rights abuses in the industry are not being adequately addressed. US jewellers Tiffany & Co were among those to sign Index on Censorship’s letter to Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos, calling for Marques’ conviction to be dropped. Other jewellers have also expressed concerns about the Kimberley Process’ failings.
On the first day of Marques’ visit to London in March, I remember sitting down at the table, and meeting for the first time – alongside the other winners – a Moroccan rapper, a Saudi documentary maker, a Kenyan women’s rights activist, and a Hungarian investigative journalist. I remember one of the first things Marques said: it was about the sudden relief of not feeling like a pariah. Although he does have some support in Angola (with a band of supporters turning up outside the courtroom and some organising middle-of-the-night protests to avoid detection), many treat him with suspicion, or simply prefer to give him a wide berth. Even his 13-year-old son once assumed he was unemployable as he spends all his time in front of a laptop at home.
It’s hard not to be moved and outraged by Marques’ tale. Does international attention help? It can do. He’s told us it can. And it’s worth a try. “Great news indeed!” he wrote in an email we received two weeks ago, in that brief moment when we thought the case was dismissed and justice, or a semblance of it, had prevailed. We only hope to get similar good news soon. His work is vital and needs to be supported, not silenced.