(Washington, DC) - The Algerian authorities should rescind a 2001 decree denying people the right to assemble peacefully, Human Rights Watch said today.

A force of several hundred police officers was deployed to the center of Algiers on the morning of March 19, 2011, to drive back several dozen demonstrators. The police have routinely used a June 2001 decree to block demonstrations in Algiers.

"Although President Abdelaziz Bouteflika lifted the country's state of emergency on February 24, the fundamental rights of the Algerian people, such as the right to assemble, have by no means been restored," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

A group of youths who declared themselves to be independent and apolitical and called themselves the March on March 19th Group had issued an appeal on Facebook for people to participate in a march. March 19 is the date of the ceasefire that concluded Algeria's war for independence.

Participants were asked to gather at the Place de la Grande Poste in the center of Algiers to march to the president's office. But when they arrived at the square at about 9 a.m., the demonstrators saw police from anti-riot brigades, the Judicial Police Mobile Brigades (BMPJ), and even the Search and Investigation Brigades (BRI), which specialize in high-risk operations, deployed throughout the entire district, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

Some of the organizers, known to be members of independent protest groups, were immediately picked out by the police and blocked from entering the square.

"When we got to the Place de la Grand Poste they immediately encircled us," one of the organizers, Amine Menadi, told Human Rights Watch. "There were around 20 policemen around me, pushing me back about 100 meters from where we were supposed to gather, and there were about a hundred others around them."

The June 2001 decree prohibits public gatherings in Algiers indefinitely. It was issued at a time when Algeria had been under a state of emergency since February 1992, and its extension was justified as part of the fight against terrorism. On February 24, 2011, after demonstrations in Algeria, and with Arab nations convulsed by protests, the authorities lifted the state of emergency.

The ban on public assembly in Algiers was nevertheless maintained. In an interview on National Algerian Radio's Channel 3 the same day, Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said that "the time [had not] yet come" to authorize public gatherings in Algiers.

Since the start of a protest movement in Algiers in mid-2010 the authorities have routinely responded by blocking peaceful gatherings in Algiers. Officials also have frequently disrupted or blocked groups from gathering in cities in the provinces where, unlike Algiers, public assembly has not been banned. In those cities, however, decree-law no. 91-19 of 1991 is in force, which requires prior approval for public gatherings. In fact it is enormously difficult for people planning demonstrations critical of the government to obtain approval, Human Rights Watch said.

Comparing the police approach on March 19 with that of previous demonstrations, Minadi said:

Now their tactic is to encircle us, separate us, and push us as far back as possible, individually. That way it's impossible to gather at all. They don't make dozens of arrests anymore, like they did at the February 12 demonstration, or send pro-Bouteflika counter-demonstrators to attack the demonstrators and wave pictures of the president.

On March 19 two of the organizers were, in fact, briefly detained and then released.

The right to assemble peacefully is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, both of which have been ratified by Algeria. Article 21 of the ICCPR states that, "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, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others".

"By using force to prevent the March 19 protest from taking place, authorities have made it clear that despite lifting the state of emergency, they have both the means and the intention to repress popularly backed protests," Whitson said. "This repression has nothing whatever to do with the fight against terrorism."