(Paris) – Algerian authorities have used arrests and other tactics to keep people from demonstrating in the capital in the period leading up to the May 10, 2012 elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces are detaining people who try to demonstrate peacefully in Algiers, including at least one candidate for election, and have prevented people from reaching the city if they suspect them of intending to demonstrate.
The government lifted a state of emergency in February 2011. Security forces justify their actions, however, on the basis of repressive laws on public gatherings, including a ban on gatherings in Algiers, the capital, imposed after a demonstration turned violent in 2001.These laws are contrary to Algeria’s binding human rights obligations under international law. The government should end its unjustified restrictions on freedom of assembly in Algiers, Human Rights Watch said.
“If Algerian authorities are serious about respect for human rights and democratic reform, they should liberalize the laws to show they are not afraid to let Algerians exercise their right of assembly,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Security forces in the capital have taken pre-emptive measures and used force against groups who have tried to defy the ban on demonstrations in the capital, especially when the purpose of the demonstration was considered politically sensitive. Typically, security forces try to block access to the site of the planned demonstration. They then move in to disperse anyone who has managed to reach the site, arresting some and transporting them to police stations, where they hold them for several hours before releasing them.
In a major speech on April 14, 2011, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced reforms that would include amendments to the constitution and to laws on elections, political parties, and the media.
Parliament has since approved new laws on all of these issues. Nevertheless, the right to freedom of assembly remains severely compromised. Authorities have neither lifted the indefinite 2001 ban nor revised the 1991 law governing assembly, which requires prior authorization for public demonstrations.
An indefinite ban on all demonstrations is not a proportionate response to a march that degenerated into violence 11 years ago but rather the negation of the people’s right of assembly, Human Rights Watch said.
Algeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, as well as freedom of association and speech. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the covenant, has advised Algeria that its laws and practices on assembly do not conform with the basic human rights standards required as a party to the treaty.
Arbitrary Arrests in Algiers
There was a high police presence in Algiers on April 20, the anniversary of the 1980 demonstrations. Kabyles (Algerian Amazighs) have gathered each year on that date to call for greater respect for their cultural rights. Abdelwahab Farsaoui, president of the Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse (RAJ), a youth movement founded in 1992 around the themes of human rights and democratization, described to Human Rights Watch an incident in downtown Algiers:
I was with nine other RAJ members heading to a meeting with a French television journalist. The meeting point was in front of the Central Post Office. When we arrived there, we saw a large deployment of security forces checking the identity cards of people and arresting some of them. There had been a call for demonstrations in Algiers on April 20. A group of policemen came and asked to see our identity cards. Then they arrested us, despite our protests that we hadn’t done anything. They took us in a police car to the Cavaignac police station [in downtown Algiers], where we stayed several hours before they released us late in the afternoon.
Farsaoui added that while at the police station, he saw another group, students from outside Algiers, mostly from Tizi-Ouzou [Kabylia], who had been arrested with the RAJ members. A policeman was interrogating them. They said they had come to Algiers to take a French exam at the French cultural center and showed the exam ticket. The policeman replied, Farsaoui said: “But you are supposed to have the exam tomorrow. Tizi-Ouzou is only one hour and a half away from Algiers, you should have come tomorrow.”
Redouane Boudjemâa, a journalism professor at the University of Algiers and member of the Arab Working Group on Media Monitoring, an independent nongovernmental organization, told Human Rights Watch that, on April 20, ten of his students were prevented from reaching Algiers for the school week that began after the Friday holiday:
My students called me to say they could not attend the Saturday classes because the police prevented them from embarking on trains going to Algiers on Friday. They had left the capital for the weekend to go back to their home towns. Most of them are from Tizi-Ouzou. The National Committee of Democratic Amazigh Students had called for a march from Algiers University to the seat of government. I think the government was trying to contain the movement by preventing young men from reaching the capital.
In another recent incident, on April 26, police arrested several prominent activists who were trying to demonstrate in front of the court of Sidi Mohamed in Algiers in solidarity with Abdelkader Kherba, a member of the National Committee to Defend the Rights of the Unemployed (Comité national pour la défense des droits des chômeurs, CNDDC) who had been arrested on April 18 and was on trial.
The security forces arrested Hakim Addad, a former secretary general of RAJ who is a candidate for the Socialist Forces Front party (FFS) in the May 10 legislative elections, as well as Tahar Belabès, spokesman for the CNDDC; Mourad Tchiko, member of the National Independent Union of Public Administration personnel (Syndicat national autonome des personnels de l’administration publique, SNAPAP); Abdou Bendjoudi, activist in the Movement of Independent Youths for Change (Mouvement des jeunes indépendants pour le changement, MJIC); and Yacine Zaïd, member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (Ligue algérienne pour la défense des droits de l’Homme, LADDH).
Addad told Human Rights Watch that the demonstrators behaved peacefully and demanded only Kherba’s release. They did not obstruct the flow of traffic or provoke disorder, he said. After arresting the protesters, the police dispatched them to several commissariats in Algiers and held them for several hours before freeing all of them without charge.
Kherba himself was prosecuted on charges that stemmed from a peaceful protest. Police arrested Kherba in front of the Sidi Mohamed courthouse, where he had come to show solidarity with court clerks, who had been on strike for ten days and were staging a sit-in to demand better work conditions for court personnel. Kherba was carrying a camera and was filming the sit-in when he was arrested, his lawyer, Amine Sidhoum, told Human Rights Watch.
Authorities charged Kherba with “direct incitement to an illegal gathering” and “hindering freedom of work” on the basis of articles 55 and 56 of law no. 90-02 of February 6, 1990, a law governing the “prevention and settlement of work-related conflicts and the exercise of the right to strike.” Article 55 prohibits leading or maintaining a suspension of work activity; and article 56 prohibits using fraud or violence to interfere with the freedom to work.Sidhoum said he contended in court that these charges are not applicable to Kherba’s conduct because the clerks had already been on strike for ten days.
At the first hearing of Kherba’s case, on April 26, the general prosecutor sought a three-year prison sentence. But on May 3, the court handed down a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of 20,000 Algerian Dinars (US$267), and freed him the same day.
Algeria’s law governing assemblies, enacted in 1989 during a period of political and legal liberalization, was modified by parliament in 1991, when the country was experiencing massive demonstrations and occasionally violent clashes between anti-government demonstrators and the security forces.
The 1991 law significantly narrowed the right to freedom of assembly by changing the legal requirements for holding a demonstration, requiring the group planning a gathering to seek authorization from the authorities instead of just notifying them.
Manifestations publiques (public demonstrations) include parades, processions, and, generally speaking, all forms of organized gatherings in public thoroughfares and spaces. Organizers of public demonstrations must request permission eight days before the event.
The wali (provincial governor) must announce his approval or prohibition of the public assembly at least five days before it is scheduled to take place. He or his subordinates can prohibit any gathering by informing its organizers that it constitutes “a real risk of disturbing the public order” or if “it seems clear that the real objective of the meeting constitutes a danger to maintaining the public order.” In addition, the law forbids any activities at gatherings that are contrary to the “constantes nationales [constitutive, immutable characteristics of the nation]” or that “harm the symbols of the revolution of November 1, the public order or public morals.”
Participation in, or inviting others to participate in, an undeclared demonstration is punishable, under the same law, by three months to one year in prison and a fine of 3,000 to 15,000 Algerian DA (US$40 to US$200).
From February 1992 until February 2011, Algeria was under a state of emergency that further restricted the right to freedom of assembly by giving the Interior Ministry sweeping powers, including the right to ban any public gatherings that are “likely to disturb public order and tranquility.”
However, in Algiers, the indefinite ban on all demonstrations remains in force. Authorities imposed that ban on June 18, 2001, four days after a huge pro-Amazigh march in Algiers that drew participants from all over the Amazigh-majority Kabylia region and that degenerated into looting of shops and clashes involving the police, demonstrators, and local youths. Four people were killed and over 300 were injured. Justifying its ban, the government declared its “firm determination to confront the serious degradation of the situation that we have seen during the tragic and unfortunate events that occurred over the last few days.”