ANGOLA LEADER ON TRIAL?

Portugal has issued a warrant for former Angolan vice-president Manuel Vicente amidst money laundering and corruption allegations.

Vice President Manuel Domingos Vicente of Angola addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo AllegriVice President Manuel Domingos Vicente of Angola addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri


Former Sonangol executive president and Angolan vice-president Manuel Vicente is at the center of an international money laundering investigation spearheaded by the Portuguese Justice Department.

Portuguese judges issued an arrest warrant valid for 48 hours for Manuel Vicente this last weekend, as police had suspected he would be in the country over that period.

But the warrant fell through when he didn't show up.

The decision did, however, manage to upset the relationship between the two countries.

Diplomatic relations between Portugal and its former colony has been troubled for years, particularly since the Justice Department first began investigating suspected money laundering by Angolan officials, including members of government and the Angolan central bank.

The issue has now escalated with extended investigations into “Operation Fizz," as the case has become known.

The Justice Department indicted Vicente's lawyer, Paulo Blanco, and engineer Armindo Pires, alleging that both had worked as front men for the Angolan politician's unlawful interests in Portugal.

Former Portuguese prosecutor Orlando Figueira has also been accused of taking bribes.

Vicente allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of euro to the Portuguese magistrate to shut down lawsuits involving him.

These alleged payments took place while Vicente was at the helm of the Angolan national oil company (NOC) Sonangol, and later during his mandate as Vice-President.

Under the agreements of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), the magistrates should hand the case over to the Angolan Department of Justice, allowing Vicente to be judged in Luanda. However, because of his prominent status as former vice-president, he benefits from diplomatic immunity and cannot be put on trial in Angola. The Portuguese Ministry of Justice accordingly decided to charge him in Lisbon.

The warrant issued by the Portuguese court this week wasn't actually to be used for Vicente's physical capture, but rather to officially notify him of his newfound status in Portugal.

This was a necessary step given that the Angolan Department of Justice repeatedly refused to inform Vicente and the lawsuit was being stalled as a result.

João Lourenço, Angola's recently elected president, reacted aggressively to this decision, threatening to leave the CPLP. In addition, he indicated that Angola could significantly reduce imports from Portugal, choosing instead to favor markets such as Spain or Italy as a form of retaliation.

Portuguese banks and other financial institutions in which the Angolan state is involved could also suffer consequences, and Portuguese companies could be directly discriminated against in deals with the state.

Angola is a major recipient of Portuguese exports, with over EUR1 billion in outbound trade registered in 2016, or around 3% of the country's overall exports.

This week, the Portuguese justice department decided to put Vicente on trial separately so that procedures could continue. Otherwise an international warrant would have had to be issued.

According to Angola, Vicente's immunity as former vice-president is valid for five years after he left office, which was in late 2017. By 2020, the Angolan Department of Justice should be able to trial Vicente for crimes committed outside of the scope of his official position.

However, Vicente's alleged crimes fall under Angola's amnesty law, which covers selected crimes punishable by up to 12 years in prison committed by Angolan and foreign nationals before the 11th of November of 2015. This suggests that if he is put on trial in Angola he will almost certainly be acquitted.

The case is sure to continue to trouble the two countries' relationship for years to come. For President João Lourenço, however, how this issue develops will also reveal the extent to which he will distance himself from his predecessor's allies and ways of doing politics.

Since his election last year, he has overhauled important aspects of Angolan economics and politics, including the sacking of former president dos Santos' children from the executive management of Sonangol and the national sovereign fund.