The trial of Angolan former vice-president Manuel Vicente for alleged corruption opened on Monday in his absence in the Portuguese capital, raising tensions between the oil-rich African country and its former colonial ruler.
Vicente, who headed Angola’s state oil company Sonangol, is accused by the Portuguese attorney general of bribing prosecutor Orlando Figueira $934 600 to scrap two probes into suspected money-laundering opened in 2011.
Angola, along with Nigeria, is one of Africa’s biggest oil producers, pumping 1.7 million barrels per day.
Five years ago, the Portugese media began to report an investigation into senior Angolan officials, including Vicente, damaging relations.
The Luanda regime, now headed by President Joao Lourenco who took over in September ending the 38-year rule of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has declared itself insulted by the allegations.
Vicente, 61, has always denied any wrongdoing. He has declined to attend hearings in Portugal arguing that he has immunity because he served as vice-president from 2012 to 2017.
To forestall a ruling in Vicente’s absence, his Portuguese lawyers and Angolan counterparts have asked the court to transfer the relevant part of the case to Angola.
“Immunity is not a personal privilege, it’s a matter of state,” defence lawyer Rui Patricio on Monday told the court, where he was also representing businessman Armindo Pires, accused of being Vicente’s intermediary.
The Portugese state prosecutor has rejected calls for a transfer of the case, stating that “Angolan authorities will not follow up on proceedings or at least won’t give any guarantees that they will”.
President Lourenco on January 8 told a press briefing that “we consider this (the Portuguese stance) an insult and we won’t put up with being treated this way”.
“For relations between Angola and Portugal to return to the level of the recent past, we want a gesture: hand the case over to Angola,” he said.
In his inaugural speech, Lourenco left Portugal out completely when he listed Angola’s strategic partners, though the southern African country is eighth largest client for Portuguese exports.
“The new president in Angola clearly is less tied to Portugal and less interested in a normalised bilateral relationship,” said Alex Vines of the British independent think-tank Chatham House.
“The Angolans have decided they needed to diversify their relationships and not just rely on Portugal. This is about sovereignty and about not having too much Angolan dirty linen parade through Portuguese media and courts,” Vine said.
Angola has been placed 164th out of 176 countries on the 2016 corruption perceptions index drawn up by NGO Transparency International.