(Beirut) – A freelance journalist known for his criticism of the Algerian government has been detained since October 4, 2015. Algerian authorities should release the journalist, Hassan Bouras, 45, or try him within a reasonable period in a fair and open trial.
On October 2, police forcibly entered into and searched his house in the town of al-Bayadh, 500 kilometers south of Algiers, and then detained him. On October 4, the general prosecutor in the first instance tribunal of Al Bayadh brought charges against him for “insulting state institutions” and “attacks intended to overthrow the regime.” An investigative judge ordered his pretrial detention the same day.
“The detention of Hassan Bouras and the draconian charges against him appear to be part of an effort to intimidate government critics,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Bouras has been locked up for a month, yet he apparently hasn’t even been told why he was arrested, much less seen any evidence against him.”
Bouras has been critical of the government, including on social media networks. Algerian authorities have previously targeted him for alleging local corruption in al-Bayadh.
Noureddine Ahmine, a defense lawyer for Bouras, told Human Rights Watch that the investigative judge has not yet called witnesses, produced any evidence to support the charges, or announced a trial date. Ahmine, who was present during Bouras’s hearings on October 4, said that neither the prosecutor nor the investigative judge informed Bouras of the basis for the charges that they read to him. Authorities should promptly disclose to Bouras any incriminating evidence against him. They should also repeal the articles of the penal code criminalizing defamation of state institutions.
Under Article 77 of the Algerian criminal code, anyone who “carries out an attack intended either to destroy or change the regime, or to incite citizens or residents to take up arms against state authorities or against one another, or harm the integrity of national territory” could face the death penalty. Article 146 of the penal code criminalizes “insults” against state institutions, with punishments of up to five years in prison.
Bouras is a board member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) for the southern regions of Algeria. He is also a member of the “Rejection Front” (Jabhat Rafdh), a coalition of groups created in March 2014 to protest the extraction of shale gas in Algeria. He has been a regular contributor to the privately owned TV station al-Magharibya, which has repeatedly criticized the Algerian government and exposed local corruption, and has written for “al- Khabar,” an independent national newspaper.
In 2003, a court sentenced Bouras to two years in prison under the then newly introduced article 146 of the penal code, which criminalized defaming and insulting state institutions. After 25 days of detention, the Saida Appeals Court ordered his release and sentenced him to a fine.
In 2008, the first instance tribunal of Bayadh sentenced him to two months in prison and fines of 40,000 Algerian dinars, (US$380) for “defamation” and “insulting state institutions,” following a complaint filed by the mayor of al-Bayadh.
The circumstances surrounding Bouras’s recent arrest reinforce the concern that criminal charges against him are politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said. Zohra Bouras, Hassan’s sister, told Human Rights Watch that on October 2, 2015, at around 5:45 p.m., more than two dozen policemen, some in civilian clothing and the rest in uniforms marked “Information and Investigation Unit,” broke open the door of their house and entered. Several surrounded her brother and handcuffed him:
A policeman took out a baton, which resembled an electric Taser, and shocked Hassan in the chest. The rest of the police searched the entire house. They went to Hassan’s room and took his money, his notebook, both his cameras, his computers, his two phones and SIM cards, his passport, and his identity card.
Some policemen went into my room. They threw everything on the floor, and they even searched my underwear drawer and threw it on the floor as well! They took my laptop and my Nokia phone.
I asked them to show me the search warrant. One of them said that they have instructions from “high-level authorities” to arrest my brother. Another one shouted at me, “You work with him! You are an activist on Facebook!” They only left the house at 7:40 p.m.
In a resolution on Algeria passed on April 28, the European Parliament noted the increasing government harassment of human rights activists and expressed concern about the “abuse of the judiciary as a tool to stifle dissent in the country.” It urged the Algerian authorities to strictly uphold the independence of the judiciary and to effectively guarantee the right to a fair trial, in line with the Algerian constitution and international legal standards.
A key element of international standards on freedom of expression – especially in the realms of governance and public interest – is that state bodies and institutions should not be able to file defamation suits, nor have such suits filed on their behalf.
The Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1999, say that “unless there is sufficient evidence that deems it necessary to prevent a person arrested on a criminal charge from fleeing, interfering with witnesses or posing a clear and serious risk to others, States must ensure that they are not kept in custody pending their trial.”
The same principles mandate the authorities to inform the person detained of details of the charge or applicable law and the alleged facts on which the charge is based, sufficient to indicate the substance of the complaint against the accused. They further say that the accused must be informed in a manner that would allow the person to prepare a defense and to take immediate steps to secure their release.