The acquittal yesterday of Algerian human rights activist Salaheddine Sidhoum was a welcome step toward ending Algeria’s record of intimidating those who work to protect human rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.

The decision by a criminal court in Algiers came in a retrial of Sidhoum’s earlier conviction in absentia, which had resulted in a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. “We are delighted that Salaheddine Sidhoum is now able to return to a life in freedom and hope that this is a positive sign for human rights defenders in Algeria who must be able to carry out their work without interference or harassment,” said June Ray, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.

Sidhoum, a physician and human rights activist, lived in hiding since 1994 following threats against him allegedly by both the security forces and armed groups. Wishing to clear his name and return to a normal life, he presented himself to the public prosecutor in Algiers on September 29 and was remanded in custody to await a retrial on the charges previously brought against him. He spent 10 days in Serkadji Prison in Algiers, most of the time on hunger strike, until he left the court yesterday a free man.

Sidhoum’s conviction in absentia was handed down in 1997 while he was still in hiding. He had been accused of undermining the state, among other charges related to “acts of terrorism or subversion.” The trial took place at a time when Algeria's courts routinely and massively violated the right of defendants to a fair trial, especially those charged with security offenses.

At the retrial, defense lawyers asserted that the court file contained only vague charges against Sidhoum but did not connect him to any specific deeds. The file contained incriminating statements by others, but these were unpersuasive, according to defense lawyers. The prosecutor argued yesterday that, if Sidhoum had been in hiding all these years, he must have been with an armed group. He asked the court to impose a seven-year prison sentence on Sidhoum. The court deliberated for only about one hour before finding Sidhoum innocent on all charges. The court is expected to issue a written decision in the case at a later date.

The trial was attended by journalists and international observers, including Tunisian lawyer Samir Ben Amor, who represented Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. However, police and security officers cordoned off the area around the courtroom and prevented access to members of the public, according to Ben Amor. Human rights organizations have repeatedly expressed concerns about restrictions imposed by the Algerian government on human rights defenders in their efforts to document and raise awareness about ongoing killings and torture, and the legacy of the past.

“Algeria faces an overwhelming problem of impunity for the most serious human rights violations committed over the past decade,” said Joe Stork, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Tens of thousands of killings and thousands of ‘disappearances’ remain uninvestigated to this day. The Algerian authorities should do all they can to ensure that those working to protect human rights will not be subjected to arbitrary restrictions, harassment or intimidation.”

Background

Since the late 1980s, Sidhoum has been documenting human rights violations and disseminating reports filled with details of incidents of torture, summary executions and "disappearances" attributed to the security forces and their allies. This work, which continued even while he was living clandestinely, helped to alert the international community to human rights conditions in Algeria. He also published a chronology of killings committed over the past decade, including killings of civilians committed by armed groups.

Sidhoum went into hiding in December 1994, not long after he gave an interview to a BBC documentary filmmaker in which he denounced torture and summary executions attributed to the security forces. On December 18, 1994—the day after the documentary, “Algeria's Hidden War,” aired on French television—three armed men in plainclothes who were believed to be security officers, came to Sidhoum’s home in Algiers and demanded to see him. Upon being told that he was not home, they threatened his 80-year-old aunt to reveal his whereabouts, and then left.

Sidhoum's fears for his personal safety had already been aroused by an article in the September 22, 1994, edition of the Algerian daily newspaper El-Watan that alleged that he belonged to a network of doctors providing medical care to wounded militants. Some of the physicians mentioned in the article had already been placed in detention. One of them was allegedly tortured, partly to extract a “confession” that Sidhoum was an Islamist supporter. That article appeared only two weeks after Sidhoum had sent an open letter to Algerian President Lamine Zeroual that provided details on 53 cases of alleged torture or summary executions.

Under international standards—including the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms—the Algerian authorities have an obligation to ensure that human rights defenders are able to enjoy all their rights and freedoms in practice and to carry out their work without harassment or intimidation.