Human Rights Watch today urged the Algerian government to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of Rachid Mesli, an Algiers lawyer convicted and sentenced this week to three years in prison in a grossly unfair trial.
In a letter sent today to Algeria's Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adami, Human Rights Watch expressed its distress at Mr. Mesli's conviction by the criminal court of Tizi Ouzou on the charge of "encouraging" and "providing apologetics" for "terrorism" that was introduced at the end of his trial, after he was acquitted of all original charges levelled against him. No evidence to support the new charge was produced and the defense had no opportunity to contest it.
A copy of the letter is attached.
July 18, 1997
Mr. Mohamed Adami
Minister of Justice
Ministry of Justice
8 Place Bir Hakim, El-Biar
via post and facsimile Dear Mr Adami:
Human Rights Watch is distressed to learn that Rachid Mesli, an Algiers lawyer active in the field of human rights, was convicted and sentenced on July 16 to three years in prison after spending almost twelve months in detention. Mr. Mesli was convicted on charges of "encouraging" and "providing apologetics" for "terrorism." This charge, according to his defense lawyers, was introduced only at the very end of the trial, after Mr. Mesli had been acquitted of all original charges brought against him. No evidence to support the new charge was produced and the defense had no opportunity to contest it.
Human Rights Watch urges that, in light of these evident irregularities, Mr. Mesli be released immediately and unconditionally.
In addition to the improper introduction of new charges at the end of the trial, we are concerned that Mr. Mesli may have been prosecuted at least in part because of his work in defense of human rights. According to information we have received, Mr. Mesli's initial interrogation began with questions regarding his contacts with the international human rights organization Amnesty International. This contact was also mentioned in his court file, and was a subject of questioning by the trial judge.
We also note that the government of Algeria denied visas to persons designated by Amnesty International to observe the trial, and discouraged other foreign lawyers from attending. Nor was Mr. Mesli's family permitted to attend the trial.
Furthermore, the court's judgment made no pronouncement on the formal complaints lodged by the defense concerning Mr. Mesli's illegal, abduction-like arrest on July 31, 1996 by plainclothesmen who presented no warrant, his subsequent "disappearance" until August 10, or the physical mistreatment he apparently endured during interrogation. By failing to respond to these complaints, the court has reinforced the impunity that prevails regarding abuses committed by the security forces against persons in their custody.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Algerian authorities on August 2, 1996 concerning Mr. Mesli's arrest but never received a reply. On July 31, 1996, Mr. Mesli was stopped in the Rouiba area outside Algiers by four armed men in civilian clothes who took him away in a car. All inquiries to the authorities by his family, lawyers, and international human rights organizations as to his whereabouts went unanswered. He was finally brought before an examining magistrate on August 10, charged with complicity with an armed group, and transferred to el-Harrache prison in Algiers. A day later, the Observatoire nationale des droits de l'homme confirmed to Amnesty International that Mr. Mesli had been held with judicial authorization prior to his appearance, but did not explain why the security forces had refused to acknowledge his detention.
Lawyers who saw Mr. Mesli at his first court appearances in August 1996 noted that he had bruises on his right eye and his hand, and seemed to be in poor health. He subsequently filed a complaint alleging that he had been subjected to violence while in custody. A medical report filed by a doctor who examined him during his detention was reportedly read out, without comment, by the presiding judge at Mr. Mesli's trial. It also noted bruises to his face and injuries to his arms.
According to our information, Mr. Mesli's trial this week lasted two days, July 15 and 16, in the criminal court in Tizi Ouzou. During the trial, he was questioned by the court on the charges appearing on his charge sheet: involvement in an armed group whose purpose is to spread killings and terror, and providing information to an armed group, based on Articles 87bis(3) and 86 respectively of the penal code. Mr. Mesli claimed in his defense that his contacts with members of armed groups were strictly in his capacity as a lawyer advising them on the possibility of surrendering to the authorities under a policy of reduced punishments for those who do so voluntarily (the law of rahma). The tribunal, after deliberating, acquitted him of these two charges but then convicted him under Article 87(bis)4, an excessively broad article that provides sentences of up to ten years for "anyone who makes apologetics for, encourages or finances, by any means whatsoever, acts of [terrorism or subversion]."
This was despite the fact that Mr. Mesli had not been brought to trial on this charge. The court provided no evidence to support this charge, and did not allow any opportunity for Mr. Mesli or his lawyers to contest it. The court instead immediately proceeded to declare him guilty of this charge, and handed down a sentence of three years. Mr. Mesli's defense lawyers have declared their intent to appeal the conviction on procedural grounds, arguing that under Algeria's code of penal procedure, a court cannot rule on a charge that was not the subject of argument by the prosecution and the defense (Articles 305 and 306).
In our view, Mr. Mesli has been subjected to a series of human rights violations from the time of his arrest through his being sentenced this week to prison in a grossly unfair trial that was closed to observers and family and in which he was questioned explicitly about his work in defense of human rights. We therefore strongly urge that he be released immediately and unconditionally.
We thank you for your consideration and welcome your comments.
Acting Executive Director
Human Rights Watch/Middle East
cc: Maitre Kemal Rezzag-Bara
Observatoire nationale des droits de l'homme