The obstacles that a government or other actors place in the way of holding meetings, rallies, debates, and other public events have a direct bearing on the openness of elections. While Algeria's constitution guarantees, in Article 41, "freedom of expression, association and assembly," the state of emergency and the Law on Assemblies and Public Demonstrations impose excessive limits on these rights. In practice, restrictions on political gatherings have been inconsistent. Legal parties of all tendencies have been able to hold meetings and public rallies, but their gatherings have been banned or restricted on some occasions.

International law permits restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly only in narrow circumstances.54 Advance prohibitions of assemblies must always be exceptional measures, and be based on well-founded concerns for security or public safety, and not on preventing persons from challenging the legitimacy of the government of the moment. As the examples provided in this report show, the measures taken by the authorities to restrict freedom of the press, assembly and association clearly exceed that which may be justified on the basis of legitimate concerns for security and public order.

On February 13, 1992, the Algerian government notified the United Nations Secretary-General that it was imposing a state of emergency and, in accordance with Article 4(3) of the ICCPR, derogating from articles of the covenant. That article states that derogations may not exceed "the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation." The Algerian government, in its letter to the Secretary-General, asserted that the state of emergency "which is aimed essentially at restoring public order, protecting the safety of individuals and property and ensuring the normal operation of institutions and public services, does not interfere with the democratic process inasmuch as the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms continues to be guaranteed."

International jurisprudence suggests strongly that even where one finds "a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation," a government cannot simply equate its own perpetuation with the "life of the nation." The European Commission of Human Rights, interpreting the identical language of Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights,55 concluded that the threat to the "life of the nation" must, in its magnitude, involve the whole nation.56 This characterization can refer with equal justification to the application of Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.57

The February 9, 1992 state of emergency decree gives the interior minister and local governors sweeping powers to "restrict or prohibit the movement of persons and vehicles," order the "temporary closure of [all types of] halls and ban all demonstrations that could disturb the public order and peace." The decree does not require the authorities to explain or justify such measures.

In addition, public gatherings by parties and associations are restricted by December 1991 amendments to Law 89-28 relating to assemblies and demonstrations. The procedure for organizing gatherings shifted from one of simple notification, where the provincial governor (wali) had authority to request a change of location, to one of obtaining permission from the wali, who is appointed by the president and who can "ban an assembly and inform its organizers if it is deemed to poses a real risk of disturbing public order or if it clearly appears that the real objective of the meeting constitutes a danger for the preservation of public order."

During the 1995 presidential elections, authorities refused to authorize some meetings called by political parties urging a boycott of the election, including the FFS and the FLN. The government also arrested overnight an activist, Djamel Zenati, who publicly urged a boycott, and allowed little or no television coverage of those urging a boycott of the vote.58

There was similar, sporadic interference with those parties that opposed the constitutional referendum of November 1996. Seddik Debaili, FFS secretary general, said:

We asked to debate the proposed constitution on television before the referendum. That was refused. Some of our militants in Bejaia [governorate] were arrested, tried and acquitted on the day of the constitutional referendum. They were accused of pressuring the voters to vote "No."59

Following the constitutional referendum, the FFS was not permitted to hold a rally to denounce "the fraudulent result and injustice" of the vote, according to Bouallam Kolai, in charge of inter-party relations at the FFS. "When we asked permission to hold an outdoor rally on December 12," he said, "The authorities responded that our request was not made in the formally correct way. We complied and made a second, correct request, but again we were rejected, with no reason."60

In May 1997, some political parties and independent candidates complained that following their public election campaign meetings, local officials and security forces had harassed attendants or tried to pressure them into joining the RND. The head of the MSP, Mahfoudh Nahnah, said his party was prevented from holding some meetings, while the pro-government parties had easy access to public halls. He threatened on May 26 to pull out of the elections:

There is a double standard at work here, and there are abuses. Our candidates held a meeting in a café yesterday and the owners were later questioned by security forces. Unless the administration stops interfering, we will have to pull out because we will not be part of a rigged election.61

Representatives of other political parties and civic associations complained that their freedom to hold meetings had been sharply curtailed in the past two years. These included parties sitting in the National Transitional Council, whose members are government-appointed. For example, Abdelmedjid Menacera, a senior figure in the MSP, said his party did not get permission to meet in public halls. This, he said:

hindered the party's activities because some small towns only had spaces that were government-owned. We have complained to the highest levels, and we always were reassured our needs would be met, but the problem is at a lower level, where local officials have the freedom to act as they please.62

The Interior Ministry's director of civil liberties, Belhadj Abdel Razeq, told Human Rights Watch, "The only reason to reject a request for a public meeting by a party or an association is related to security, if there is any danger, or a security problem. But this is decided at the local level and not at our office."63

The National Union of Magistrates (l'Union nationale de magistrats) took the governor (wali) of the Algiers governorate to court because he refused its request for a permit to hold a meeting in December 1996. A split in the union had resulted in the leadership of one of the factions holding its own general assembly last October. When the other faction, which claims to be more independent of government influence, requested permission to convene its general assembly, the wali refused, explaining that the new leadership had already met. "The wali has overstepped his authority and has no right to pass judgment on the union leadership," Fatima Chenaif, chief magistrate at the criminal court of Algiers and a founding member of the union, told us.64

Members of the Rally for Youth Action (Rassemblement action des jeunes, RAJ), a nongovernmental youth association that leads university seminars and addresses the problems of unemployment, poverty and human rights, said their group had come under heavy pressure, including bans on meetings, particularly after it launched a "Manifesto for Peace" in April 1995. The organization demanded "respect for human rights regardless of social position, ideology or culture," the right to peaceful assembly, and "a peace process, in which all, with no exception, must participate."

Karima Hammache, RAJ's director of public relations, said:

At our concert in June 1995, for which we were given permission the same day, we got thousands of people to sign our manifesto for peace. We want the political opposition and the government to talk to each other. They clash and we, the young people, are victims caught in the middle.65

Since the concert, she said, the authorities have rarely allowed RAJ activists to hold seminars and conferences in high schools or in state-run youth centers, and rejected a request to organize a concert in March 1997. "Before our 1995 concert, we had access to the radio and to the public press. We realize there are armed Islamist terrorists, but we can't understand why the government restricts organizations like ours which are against all forms of totalitarianism," Hammache said.

Another call for a broad-based political dialogue was made by an ad hoc group of political figures, lawyers, and intellectuals in November 1996, many of whom were identified with the National Contract platform. Their initiative, a Call for Peace (Appel pour la paix), condemned the proposed constitution and called for a dialogue with political forces across the spectrum, an end to the emergency law, the release of prisoners of conscience, and freedom of expression.

The government initially rejected a request for permission by the group to hold a public meeting planned in December 1996. The government allowed a Call for Peace rally in March, and about 1,000 people attended," according to Bouallam Kolai, an FFS activist and signatory of the Call for Peace.66

54 Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 21 provides:

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

55 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 213 U.N.T.S. 221, E.T.S. 5 (1950). 56 Greek case, 12a Y.B. Eur. Conv. Human Rights, para. 153 (1969). 57 Buergenthal, "State Obligations and Permissible Derogations," The International Bill of Rights, p. 80. 58 See Human Rights Watch/Middle East press release, November 16, 1995. 59 Human Rights Watch interview, Algiers, March 31, 1997. 60 Human Rights Watch interview, Algiers, March 31, 1997. 61 Roula Khalaf, "Islamist party may pull out of Algeria poll," Financial Times, May 27, 1997. 62 Human Rights Watch interview, Algiers, April 1, 1997. 63 Human Rights Watch interview, Algiers, April 9, 1997. 64 Human Rights Watch interview, Washington, D.C., May 8, 1997. 65 Human Rights Watch interview, Algiers, April 11, 1997. 66 Human Rights Watch interview, Algiers, March 31, 1997.