(Paris) – Algerian activists and others convicted on charges of holding an “armed gathering” and violence against the police appear to have been convicted after an unfair trial in which they were unable to challenge the evidence against them, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and Human Rights Watch said today. Based on the written judgment, the lower court seems to have centered its verdict on police testimony that did not set out evidence implicating any individual defendants in alleged violence during a demonstration in the southern city of Laghouat on June 8, 2014.
A court in Laghouat found all 26 defendants guilty on June 18 after a one-day trial, sentencing nine of them to six months in prison and the other 17 in absentia to two years in prison. Most of those convicted in absentia are well-known local activists who denied participating in the demonstration.
“Courts should be determining individual criminal responsibility and giving each defendant the opportunity to challenge the evidence against them rather than seemingly applying a doctrine of ‘someone must pay,’ ” said Michel Tubiana, EMHRN president.
After the Laghouat court convicted the group, four of the defendants tried in absentia turned themselves in while two others were arrested. All exercised their right to a new trial, and the court, in separate new trials, acquitted them for lack of evidence, their lawyer, Noureddine Ahmine, told the EMHRN and Human Rights Watch.
Djilali Ben Safieddine, one of the 17 defendants sentenced in absentia, told EMHRN and Human Rights Watch that he was nowhere near the June 8 protest, had not been informed that he was charged, and never received a summons to appear for the trial. Ben Safieddine, a private security guard and a member of the Defense Committee of the Rights of Unemployed in Laghouat, has avoided arrest and went into hiding.
Another local activist, Mohamed Rag, was arrested on June 30 near his house in Laghouat and placed in pretrial detention pending his retrial. He was acquitted on July 13.
The appeals hearing for the nine sentenced on June 18 is scheduled for August 4.
Aissa Dahb, an activist who participated in the June 8 protest, told EMHRN and Human Rights Watch that about 20 people from local civil society groups had gathered that day in front of the governorate to protest the way the government selects recipients of public housing units.
He said the group tried to talk to the mayor, who refused to receive them. The group then went to the headquarters of the governorate to try to meet with the governor, who also refused to meet with them. Dahb said that six or seven security agents guarding the governorate assaulted El Taher Yacoub, one of local activists, clubbing him on the head, leading to clashes with security agents. Afterward, police reinforcements arrived, he said.
Dahb said that following these clashes, Yacoub and another member of the group, Ben Safieddine Khamisati, went to the police to file a complaint against the officers who they said beat them. Dahb followed them in his own car and saw Khamisati, Yacoub, and a third protester, Mohamed Ziyadi, enter the police station. After some time, he learned that they had been arrested.
Ahmine, who is representing all of the accused, said that in reaching the guilty verdict, the judges relied only on statements by security force agents that protesters had injured them. Ahmine said that none of the evidence identified any defendant as directly participating in any act of violence or property damage.
The written judgment also cites no evidence incriminating the defendants individually. It states that 22 police officers filed complaints and gave written testimony alleging that they were victims of protester violence. During the June 18 hearing, judges heard three police officers out of the 22. They described the general circumstances but did not identify any of the accused as someone who committed a violent act.
Several of the accused admitted participating in the protest but denied they engaged in any act of violence. In its judgment, the court cited the evidence of violence, such as police statements and complaints, photos of broken windows, and the prosecutor’s description of the material damage, but without citing any evidence tying the violence to any of the accused.
In addition, Ahmine said, police undermined the public nature of the hearing by singling out activists and refusing to allow them into the courtroom. The courtroom was not full, and there was no reason to prevent the activists from attending the trial, Ahmine said.
Dhab also told EMHRN and Human Rights Watch that the police prevented him and others from entering the courtroom.
Barring selected people from the courtroom contravenes article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that “Everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”
“Just being an activist without any evidence you committed a crime, or even were near the scene, shouldn’t get you sentenced to prison,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Nor should it get you barred from a public trial.”