Former vice-president on trial: a watershed moment for Portugal and Angola

Former vice-president on trial: a watershed moment for Portugal and Angola

This article was updated at 14:55 on 23 January 2018

By João Paulo Batalha, Chair, Transparência e Integridade (Transparency International Portugal)

Yesterday, 22 January 2018, marked an historic date in the complicated relationship between Angola and its former coloniser Portugal.

Manuel Vicente is the former head of the all-powerful Angolan state oil company Sonangol and was, until a few months ago, the vice-president of Angola. Now he is the main target of a high-profile corruption case that began yesterday in Lisbon. 

Vicente is accused of corruption and money laundering for allegedly paying Orlando Figueira, a Portuguese prosecutor, €760,000 in bribes and giving him a cozy job in an Angolan-owned bank in exchange for Figueira dropping investigations into Vicente’s real estate deals in Portugal.

However, Vicente was not sitting in the dock at the Lisbon courtroom – and is not expected to be anytime soon. Angolan judicial authorities have refused requests from the Portuguese Prosecutor's Office to formally notify the former vice-president of the charges against him. If this refusal to assist in the case continues, Vicente will have to be declared a fugitive from justice (which means an international arrest warrant may be issued) and tried in absentia.

Meanwhile, Vicente's lawyers – and the Angolan government – are pushing for the charges against him to be sent to the Angolan judiciary for trial there. Yet the Angolan Prosecutor's Office have made it clear that if that happened, the case would never see the inside of a courtroom, as Vicente is protected by an immunity law as a former vice-president and also falls under an amnesty law that would immediately clear him.

The case has strained relations between Portugal and Angola. The Portuguese courts have recognised Angola's professed unwillingness or inability to try Vicente in his own country, and have so far refused his lawyers’ requests for the charges to be sent back to Angola, declaring that trying the case outside Portugal would not serve the interest of justice. Angolan President João Lourenço has called this judicial decision “an offense” to Angola that will not be tolerated.

In recent weeks, the Angolan government has been threatening economic and political retribution if the trial goes ahead as planned. This pressure seems to be an attempt not only to influence the outcome of the Vicente case but also other ongoing investigations against Angolan nationals suspected of money laundering and other offences in Portugal.

Regrettably, such pressure has proved effective with Portuguese politicians in the past. When the first news of investigations into Vicente broke in Portugal back in 2013, then Portuguese Foreign Minister Rui Machete actually apologised for the judicial inquiry in an interview on Angolan national radio, trying to reassure the then vice-president that nothing would come of it.

The current government has repeatedly stated that it is powerless to intervene in a judicial matter, but recognises the case as an “irritant” in the relationship between Portugal and Angola. Portuguese Prosecutor General Joana Marques Vidal has distinguished herself by allowing high-profile corruption cases to be fully investigated and charged in courts, regardless of political pressures. Yet the minister of justice recently announced that Vidal would not be appointed to a second term when her mandate expires in October. Some see this as an indirect attempt to placate the Angolan government who, like many Portuguese politicians, are hostile towards Vidal.

The Portuguese and Angolan governments need to accept that a capable, independent judiciary is not an “irritant” in bilateral relations or an offence demanding retribution, but a non-negotiable part of a fully functioning state based on the rule of law. They must refrain from any interference or public comment on an ongoing case being tried in a court of law under due process with ample and accessible opportunities for appeal. The real obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to improve relations between Angola and Portugal is the corruption and complicity that has allowed Angolan officials to bring shady money into the Portuguese economy – including at-risk sectors such as the banking system and real estate.

The trial that began yesterday in Lisbon is an opportunity to clean away the stain of impunity and bring about a new era of justice and shared prosperity for the people of both countries.

What is demanded from politicians is to simply stay out of the way.

Image: Unsplash, John Jason

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