New York, October 12, 2011–An Angolan judge handed a suspended prison term and a fine to the editor of an independent newspaper on Monday in connection with stories that alleged corruption and abuse of power by five senior officials close to President José Eduardo Dos Santos, according to news reports and local journalists.
Judge Manuel Pereira da Silva convicted William Tonet, editor of the private weekly Folha 8, of criminal libel and sentenced him to a year in prison, suspended for two years, and a fine of 10 million kwanza (US$105,000), news reports said. In a highly unusual move, the public prosecutor withdrew the charges in court and demanded the acquittal of the journalist, local journalists told CPJ. The judge ignored the request.
Tonet’s trial, which began in 2008, was based on a complaint filed jointly by Gen. Manuel Helder Vieira Dias Júnior Kopelipa, state minister and military adviser to the president; Gen. Antonio José Maria, head of military intelligence; Hélder Fernando Pitta Gróz, attorney-general of the armed forces; Francisco Pereira Furtado, former chief of staff of the Angolan armed forces; and Sílvio Burity, national director of customs. Folha 8 had reported that the five men gained control of diamond mines in Lunda Norte province without public, competitive bidding, according to news reports.
During Monday’s court hearing in the capital, Luanda, Judge da Silva threatened to prosecute journalists covering the trial if they recorded the proceedings, local journalists said.
“The outrageous fine and prison sentence against William Tonet, and his conviction despite the withdrawal of the prosecution, appear to be political retaliation for raising critical questions about the government’s management of diamond mines,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We expect that the Supreme Court will reverse this ruling after a careful review of the evidence. We believe this ruling serves the interests of powerful public figures wishing to settle scores with their critics in the press.”
Tonet immediately said he would appeal the sentence to the Supreme Court, but the judge imposed payment of the fine within five days, threatening to imprison the journalist if he did not pay, news reports said. In interviews with Agence France-Presse shortly after his sentencing, Tonet and his defense lawyer, David Mendes, protested the immediate imposition of the payment of the fine, claiming that their pending appeal should have suspended the execution of any part of the sentence, news reports said. “The findings of the court do not correspond to the basic norms of the law, and the fine is exorbitant,” said Mendes. “Where are we going to find the money to pay the claimants? I prefer to go to prison,” Tonet told AFP.
Today, a group of Angolan civil-society groups began a campaign to collect funds for Tonet’s fine so he could avoid his imprisonment, according to news reports.
In March, another journalist, Armando José Chicoca, was sentenced to prison over coverage of an alleged sexual harassment scandal implicating a top judge, according to CPJ research. He was released on a US$2,400 bail after a month in detention, according to local journalists.