On Saturday, June 20, authorities came to the home of Observer and Angola activist Luaty Beirão. He was arrested in a sweep that included 14 other activists. Their crime? Reading subversive literature, which the state has linked to “rebellion”, “attempted coup d'état” and “crimes against national security”. Luaty has been on a hunger strike since Sunday. One of his friends visited him in prison and told us about the conditions and why even Angolan citizens think this arrest is absurd.

Most of the young people arrested on June 20 and detained since were pro-democracy activists, who have been organizing peaceful protests against the 35-year-regime of Angolan dictator Eduardo Dos Santos since 2011. These protests were often shut down after only five minutes and protesters were sometimes arrested and tortured, as Luaty shared in several articles he did with the Observers.

However, this time, it was the activists’ book club reading list that made the Angolan state worried enough to arrest them. According to the Guardian and Angolan media, authorities took issue with two books in particular: Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, which describes itself as “a blueprint for nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes” and a book by Angolan journalist Domingos da Cruz, whose title translates as “tools to destroy a dictator and avoid a new dictatorship”. Da Cruz himself was among those arrested.

In a statement released shortly after the arrests, Angolan authorities accused the detainees of “preparing acts aimed at disrupting public order and security in the country”.

Angolan and international human rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International, have denied these accusations and called on the Angolan government to release the detained activists.

The government’s willingness to do that seems unlikely considering statements made on July 2 by President Dos Santos. In a speech at a party meeting, he made a chilling reference to the young activists: “We should not allow the Angolan people to undergo the dramatic events of the May 27, 1977 coup.”

The date carries huge weight in Angola. The attempted coup was followed by a two-year purge during which thousands of so-called dissidents were killed by the ruling MPLA party.

“The government chose the worst possible time to arrest these kids because the illusion is falling”

Our Observer, Claudio Silva, is a friend of the arrested activists. He visited them in prison.

Today, I went with Luaty’s wife, uncle and cousin to the prison where he is being held along with six or seven other activists. It was visitation day and so we saw the families of other prisoners. Luaty’s wife was able to talk to him for about 45 minutes.

The most important thing to remember is that all of these prisoners are being held in solitary confinement. They are in tiny rooms practically 24/7 and they have little contact with the outside world. They’ve been in prison now for almost two weeks.

Moreover, the prisoners have been moved to a prison about 70 kilometres from Luanda, so it is very hard to access, especially for poorer families, who often don’t have cars and can’t miss a day of work to go. One of my friends, known as Mbanza Hamba, is being held in another prison and I haven’t been able to see him. He’s been badly beaten by police before. Another activist who was arrested is Nito Alves, he is only 19.

‘They can’t even organise a protest. So how do you think they are going to organize a coup d’état?’

For once, I think that civil society is uniting around an issue. People who haven’t said a word about politics before are talking about this.

First, that is because a lot has happened in the last year. When we went to bed in December, our economy was booming. When we woke up in January, oil prices plummeted. People have realized what a sham our economy is—we only export one thing. Now, it is hard to get your money out of the country and prices for goods are going up. There have also been a series of corruption scandals. So the government chose the worst possible time to arrest these kids because the illusion is falling.

But I think the main reason that people are finally reacting is because it is so absurd. The fifteen activists who were arrested are just kids—many are students or grad students or young professionals. They have been trying to organise protests for years now and the police clamp down on them and end their protest after five minutes. They can’t even organize a protest. So how do you think they are going to organize a coup d’état? Nobody is buying it.

I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, though, because we are in uncharted territory. There’s a lot of mobilisation across social media. But if nothing happens soon, we’re going to have to think of another plan.

French President François Hollande was in Angola for meetings with business leaders earlier this week. He did not address the detention of the activists nor any other human rights issues.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Brenna Daldorph (@brennad87)