Already one year and nothing has happened. I have been thinking about Pastor Antonio Monteiro every day since I met him in the Civil Prison of Lomé, Togo.
We all have periodic nightmares, but they never last too long. In the case of Monteiro, his reality has become an ongoing nightmare.
Monteiro was invited to Togo by the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Sahel Union to help families as a missionary in Togo. In May 2011, rumors spread of about 20 young women disappearing and being killed by a network of human blood traffickers in the northern part of Lome.
As happens in similar cases, people accused the police and authorities of doing nothing to solve the case.
Police arrested Monteiro on March 15 of 2012. His office, church and home were raided under heavy media spotlight. No evidence was found. He spent 14 days detained at police headquarters.
This whole case is based on the accusation of one person. Monteiro’s accuser was an ex-prisoner who said Monteiro was a leader of the blood trafficking group. Monteiro had previously helped the man while ministering to him. It is believed that the man was taken into custody where police forced him under duress to name people he knew and with whom he had some contacts. This man, with a documented history of mental instability, offered any names he could readily think of.
The events were devastating for Monteiro’s wife, children, colleagues and church members. The name of their husband, father and friend was on TV and on the front page of national newspapers.
After a few days, an investigation and a public confession of the accuser unfolded like a TV drama. No evidence was found, and it became clear for many that Monteiro’s arrest was a mistake. Some also found it strange that a Seventh-day Adventist minister was suspected of using human blood for a religious ceremony.
The accusation against Monteiro lacked credibility. Most people thought that he would be released and the case dismissed.
But releasing him would have invited some questions: Who is responsible for such a big mistake? Who will speak to media saying: “Sorry, we messed up.” And the question of the people will be: “Who are the true criminals and why have they not been arrested?” It would be highly embarrassing for authorities to have to face these questions.
Monteiro is still in prison, along with Bruno Amah, a fellow Seventh-day Adventist also accused of the same crime. The facility is overcrowded where prisoners are trying to survive. Innocent people awaiting trial and criminals share the same space to sleep.
I remember when I saw Monteiro the first time. He wore a clean t-shirt, and I might have guessed he was a visitor. We prayed together. I explained the work that had already been done to grant his release, and it was our hope that he would be set free in a few days or weeks.
That was Saturday, September 8, 2012.
The men were in prison over Christmas. Some hoped that the authorities would have ended that tragedy. At this point it was a case of an arbitrary detention. He still had not had a trial. We contacted ambassadors, ministers and presidents. But nothing happened.
Our lawyers later received information that Monteiro would receive a trial on January 29 or 30 at the criminal court. It wasn’t great news, but at least Monteiro’s case would be heard and he would be able to defend himself with legal counsel.
But the trial was postponed. Nothing has happened, and they are still in prison.
We have sent letters to the president of Togo asking that justice be done.
New rumors are spreading about the imminent arrest of criminals. But until now Monteiro and Amah are still in prison. We will not give up. We want a fair trial, and we are certain it will prove their innocence.
On March 15, it will be one year since Monteiro and Amah were arrested. We expect that before this date they will be released. We are planning to launch a campaign to get signatures and send letters from all around the world to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and to the president of Togo.
Monteiro’s wife, his four children, and Amah’s family must know that we are doing everything we can to help. They are not alone. They are members of a great family of more than 30 million church members and their children.
We may feel powerless when innocent people are paying the price for free criminals. But we trust in God who will have the last word. His justice will prevail in the end.
—John Graz is director of the department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. He is heading up the Monteiro Working Group, which is addressing the situation from the world church headquarters.