On this date in 1976, three Britons and one American were shot in Angola by a military police squad for murders committed as mercenaries earlier during the year.
They were among 13 foreigners sentenced at the Luanda Trial, which occurred on the pivot of Angola’s transition from generation-long anti-colonial insurrection on towards generation(s)-long civil war. Between them, more than half a million Angolans died, but this date belonged to a couple of unrepresentative Anglos.
Long story short, the immediate aftermath of Angolan independence in late 1975 was a scramble for control among the several factions who had been fighting the Portuguese … along with a scramble among interested outside states to line up their allies in this resource-rich Cold War prize.
Over the course of the first few months of independence, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) more or less consolidated state power, and it proceeded to prosecute supporters of a rival guerrilla movement for their part in the conflict immediately after independence.
Thirteen foreign mercenaries who were captured by MPLA-supporting Cuban troops — the other nine drew long prison sentences — were charged in a show trial with war crimes for their conduct in the field in a case that made the western gun-for-hire an emblem of colonial depravity.
The most notorious of the bunch was Costas Georgiou. A Greek Cypriot emigre to Britain, he had gone to Angola as “Colonel Callan” and was wanted by Scotland Yard for there ordering a mass execution of other British mercenaries — an act he admitted at trial. Even the inevitable London Times editorial against the trial (June 29, 1976) agreed “the proceedings against Callan, if not the rigours of the sentence may be conceded.”
The others looked much less culpable, almost arbitrarily selected for death from among the ranks of unprepossessing, sometimes barely-there mercs. American Daniel Gearhart, a Vietnam veteran drowning in debt, had apparently been in the field for a mere three days and never so much as fired a shot; that he had advertised in Soldier of Fortune magazine was held to aggravate the charges against him, and in vain did the father of four insist that being tried for his life was enough to scare him straight out of the business.
Angolan defense attorneys, while also appealing against the legality of the trial on grounds of both international and domestic law, spoke that revolutionary language of decolonization in defending their charges. Georgiou, according to Maria Teresinha Lopes, was
“a colonized man … [treated in England as] a sub-human, just a Greek, just a ‘boy’.”
Another Angolan defense attorney argued against the death penalty because
“To condemn them to death while ignoring their social origin in terms of revolutionary justice would deny the theory which guided our revolution. My clients are an integral part of the exploited class.” (Both comments from London Times, June 19, 1976)
The era of decolonization was a time for idealism, but not the sort that would shrink from bloodshed.
In denying the doomed men clemency, Angola’s first independent president Agostinho Neto denounced
Mercenarism, instrument of the aggressive designs of imperialism … a scourge of the African continent and a grave threat to the peace, freedom and independence of the peoples …
It is imperative that the practice of mercenarism be banished once and for all from our planet. It is urgent that all states and peace-loving forces fight it most energetically.
We are applying justice in Angola not only in the name of our martyred people but also for the good of the brother peoples of Namibia, Zimbabwe and all the peoples of the world against whom imperialism is already getting ready to prepare new mercenary aggressions.
(Text dated July 9, and reprinted in the July 10 London Times)
You could just about substitute the word “terrorism” for “mercenarism” and read it on today’s campaign trail.
Juridically, Angola pursued these warriors as peoples who had fought unlawfully and could therefore be placed outside the protections conferred on soldiers by the Geneva Conventions — and subjected to the liberating power of revolutionary violence.
That this ad hoc concept of “mercenarism” could be exploited to license an outrage upon humanity was a notion relentlessly denounced by British and American officials,* who had not yet fully explored the utility of the “unlawful combatant” construct in extending the reach of their own security states.
As for all that peace-loving, brother-peoples stuff in the execution order?
What actually happened after the mercenaries were shot was that the two biggest former anti-colonial guerrilla movements in Angola morphed into Cold War proxies — the MPLA of the Warsaw Pact, supported by its control of the country’s oil; UNITA of NATO, supported by its control of the country’s diamonds — and bled the country dry in a horrific civil war.
* Henry Kissinger, then President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, complained that Angola’s decision
to ignore both the law and the facts … cannot help but affect adversely the development of relations between the United States and Angola.