Algerian authorities should drop politically motivated charges against two human rights lawyers when their trial resumes on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said today.

Amine Sidhoum and Hassiba Boumerdassi have been on trial since August on charges of handing unauthorized documents to their clients in prison. They face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Sidhoum and Boumerdassi are Algiers-based attorneys known for their public defense of human rights. They regularly represent detainees charged with terrorism and security offenses, families of persons “disappeared” by the security forces during the civil strife of the 1990s, and suspects who claim the police tortured them under interrogation.

“These cases are really about intimidating human rights lawyers who stand up for their clients,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Both lawyers frequently criticize human rights violations in media interviews. They have persisted despite a 2006 law that grants immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of most atrocities committed during the 1990s, while providing penal sanctions for persons who speak or act with respect to those events in such a way as “to undermine the good reputation of its agents who honorably served [the state], or to tarnish the image of Algeria internationally.” The government approved the “Decree Implementing the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation” in February 2006.

In a related incident, Algerian authorities on February 7 banned a seminar that independent human rights organizations had sought to organize in Algiers, under the title “Truth, Peace and Conciliation.”

The prosecutor accused Sidhoum of handing a prisoner five of his business cards in July without seeking permission from prison authorities. The cards had nothing on them but Sidhoum’s contact information. Sidhoum admits to having given the inmate the cards, but says he did so at the inmate’s request. He pointed out that Algerian lawyers often give prisoners their business cards when they ask for them, sometimes on behalf of fellow prisoners. This neither violates any laws or regulations posted at the prison, nor endangers the security of the prison, he said.

In the case of Boumerdassi, the prosecution alleges that on June 27, without first seeking permission, she gave a client in Serkadji prison in Algiers the written report (procès verbal) of his first appearance before the investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction). Boumerdassi denies the charge, explaining that she handed the document in question to a prison guard, who promised to deliver it to her client once he obtained permission to do so.

Prosecutors have charged both Boumerdassi and Sidhoum with violating Article 166 of the prison law, which punishes anyone who provides or tries to provide, under illegal conditions, a detainee with “money, correspondence, medicine or any other object that has not been authorized.” If the offender is someone, such as a defense attorney, who is empowered to have direct contact with the detainee, the punishment is from one to five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 dinars (US$141 to $705). A lawyer convicted under this provision can be barred from practicing the profession.

The Boumerdassi and Sidhoum cases are distinct but are proceeding in tandem before the Bab el-Oued Court of First Instance. Members of the Algiers bar have attended trial sessions in a show of solidarity with their two colleagues.

Sidhoum is currently facing a second trial on charges that also seem baseless and politically motivated. According to a complaint filed by the justice minister, Sidhoum defamed a state institution when the newspaper Ech-Chourouk al-Yaoumi quoted him in its May 30, 2004 issue as saying that one of his clients “was in his thirtieth month in Serkadji prison following an arbitrary ruling by the Supreme Court.” Sidhoum argues that the daily obviously misquoted him, in view of the fact that the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the case, and did not do so until April 28 of the following year. The case is before the investigating judge.

On February 7 authorities broke up the “Truth, Peace and Conciliation” seminar organized by five Algerian organizations that represent families of some of the thousands of persons whom state agents forcibly disappeared during the 1990s, as well as families of those abducted or killed by terrorist groups. After several of the invited foreign speakers were unable to obtain visas to enter Algeria, police amassed at the Mercure Hotel in Algiers on the morning of February 7 and prevented the two-day conference from getting under way.

At 9 p.m. the night before, the Algiers prefecture notified the organizers, who had applied five weeks earlier for permission to hold the conference, that this conference could not take place. The prefecture did not explain its decision. However, Farouk Ksentini, who heads Algeria’s state human rights commission, was quoted on February 11 in the French-language daily L’Expression as saying that banning the conference was “consistent with the terms of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.” He said, “Article 46 [of the Charter] ... forbids raising any more the issue of the ‘disappeared.’ The matter is closed and no one has the right to speak about it.”

Asked to confirm his remarks in L’Expression, Ksentini told Human Rights Watch on February 15 that he was not expressing his own view but merely speculating on authorities’ motives in banning the gathering. However, he acknowledged that he had yet to criticize or regret publicly the interdiction of the conference – to which he himself had been invited to speak.

The day before authorities proscribed the staging of the seminar, Algeria’s foreign minister was in Paris signing the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance, at a ceremony opening the new treaty for signature by states.

The convention, which aims to prevent and establish accountability for “disappearances,” obliges states in Article 24 to “guarantee the right to form and participate freely in organizations and associations concerned with attempting to establish the circumstances of enforced disappearances and the fate of disappeared persons.” This kind of peaceful associational activity is, moreover, protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria has ratified.

“The new UN treaty against forced disappearances is clear: Countries must allow independent human rights activity as part of their solemn engagement to prevent ‘disappearances,’” said Whitson.

“If its signature is to be taken seriously, Algeria must permit groups that represent families of the ‘disappeared’ and lawyers like Hassiba Boumerdassi and Amine Sidhoum to operate freely and without harassment,” Whitson added.