(Tunis) – Algerian authorities arrested a labor rights activist on March 1, 2015, based on ironic comments he made on Facebook. The activist, Rachid Aouine, is accused of “inciting an unarmed gathering” and could face up to one year in jail.

Police arrested Aouine, an activist with the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Unemployed Workers (Comité National pour la Défense des Droits de Chômeurs, CNDDC), in the northeastern city of Oued Essouf, and later briefly detained his wife and mother and other CNDDC members who protested his arrest. Authorities have previously prosecuted other CNDDC activists in connection with anti-fracking protests in the southern part of the country. 

“In addition to trying peaceful protesters, Algerian authorities now appear intent on jailing an activist merely for his ironic comments about the police on the Web,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The freedom to criticize officials such as the police and to stage protests is a necessary part of supporting public debate in Algeria.”

The authorities should immediately free Aouine and drop charges against him, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 3, the prosecutor of Oued Essouf’s First Instance Tribunal charged Aouine with “inciting an unarmed gathering” under article 100 of the Algerian penal code. In his Facebook posting, he commented on an official announcement that law enforcement officers who staged protests will face disciplinary action, writing: “Police officers, why don’t you go out today to protest against the arbitrary decisions against your colleagues…, instead of controlling the free activists and the protesters against the shale gas?” His trial is scheduled for March 9.

At Aouine’s hearing on March 3, police arrested his family members and supporters as they protested his arrest outside the court in Oued Essouf. Youssef Soltani, a CNDDC member, told Human Rights Watch that police arrested him and about 25 others at around 10 a.m., beat them, forced them into police cars, and took them to the central police headquarters. Most, including Aouine’s wife and mother, were released after several hours; Soltani and six others were held overnight but released without charge by the public prosecutor on March 4. 

Algeria’s penal code contains several articles that criminalize peaceful protests. Article 97 makes it an offense punishable by up to one year in prison to organize or participate in demonstrations in public spaces. Article 100 imposes the same penalty for “inciting an unarmed gathering” in writing or speech. Law 91-19 makes it a crime to hold or participate in public gatherings not authorized by the Interior Ministry, which rarely approves gatherings critical of the government. 

Algerian authorities regularly use these laws to prosecute and imprison peaceful protesters. On February 11, the First Instance Tribunal of Laghouat sentenced eight CNDDC members to one-year prison terms for “unauthorized gathering” under penal code article 97, and “exercising pressure on the decisions of magistrates” under penal code article 147.

These restrictions on speech and demonstrations violate Algeria’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  

Under international law, any restriction on the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly must be limited to what is necessary and proportionate, and the manner and intensity of state interference must be for a legitimate purpose.

“Algeria’s legal curbs on the right to free assembly, and its prosecution of anyone who even speaks out to defend this right, run directly counter to international law,” Goldstein said. “The Algerian authorities need to change the laws against peaceful protest and stop sending protesters to prison.”