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(Beirut) – Police inaction, insufficient shelter space, and ineffective investigation and prosecution often leave domestic violence survivors in Algeria at risk of further mistreatment despite a new law criminalizing spousal abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 59-page report, “‘Your Destiny is to Stay with Him’: State Response to Domestic Violence in Algeria,” found that domestic violence survivors face an uphill struggle to obtain justice and personal security. They face social stigma, economic dependence on the abusers, a shortage of shelters, lack of an adequate response from the police, the prosecutors, and the judges in investigating abuse, and judicial hurdles such as unreasonable evidentiary requirements. Algerian authorities should increase support for domestic violence victims, including directing police and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute cases, and increasing shelter capacity and protection orders to prevent abusers from inflicting further harm.

“Victims of domestic violence have long faced the double injustice of abuse at home and then a meager response from the government,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Algeria’s new law on domestic violence is only a start.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 women survivors of domestic violence, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, and service providers for survivors, including lawyers and psychologists. Human Rights Watch also requested meetings and specific information from the government but received no reply.

A woman at Dar al-Insania, an NGO-run shelter in the eastern city of Annaba on March 3, 2010. Dar al-Insania provides women victims of domestic violence, among others, with shelter and services.  © 2010 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

In December 2015, parliament adopted Law no. 15-19, amending the penal code to specifically criminalize some forms of domestic violence and increase penalties for those responsible. The penal code had previously treated domestic violence under general provisions on assault. Law no. 15-19 makes assault against a spouse or former spouse punishable by up to 20 years in prison and by a life sentence if the attack results in death. The law criminalizes other forms of domestic violence, including psychological and some economic abuse.

Survivors of domestic violence face various hurdles when they try to leave abusive relationships, including social pressure to keep their families together. Even though they have serious injuries, several women told Human Rights Watch that their relatives encouraged them to reconcile with their husbands. The police often gave them the same advice, telling them it is a “private matter” and ignoring the legal provisions criminalizing the abuse. Several lawyers told Human Rights Watch that because of these and other hurdles, most survivors either do not press charges or drop their complaints at the investigative stage.

Hasna, a 31-year-old mother of four, told Human Rights Watch that her husband started beating her when she was pregnant. In September 2014, during a dispute, he threw her against the wall, and slapped and punched her in the face. She went in her pajamas to a police station, where a policeman told her: “This is a family matter. This is not our business. This is your husband. Maybe he was angry. He will come back to his senses. Go and find some elders who can calm things down.”

Even when they record the complaint, police often follow up inadequately. Human Rights Watch found that the police often do not conduct on-site investigations or interview witnesses, and that the police give credence too readily to the husband’s account of the incident.

Salwa, 39, said she filed a complaint against her husband the day that he severely lacerated her breasts with scissors and beat her. When she went back to the police to inquire about the investigation, they told her: “We called your husband. He said you fell down, and this is why you have these bruises.” She said they told her they were closing the case.

When women decide to leave abusive husbands or partners, they usually have few if any places to go. While shelters should be a vital part of protecting victims of domestic violence, Algeria, a country of 41 million, has only three government-run shelters specialized in helping women victims of violence. Private shelters run by nongovernmental groups receive no government funding and struggle to provide services.

The new law criminalizing domestic violence is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said. Algerian authorities should now adopt comprehensive legislation and policies to prevent domestic violence and support victims. They should enact a new law giving victims the possibility to seek protective orders from both the police and the courts. The orders can, among other things, require the suspected offender to vacate the home, stay away from the victim and their children, surrender weapons, and refrain from violence, threats, damaging property, or contacting the victim. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or UN Women, considers such orders, which can be imposed before the suspected offender faces trial, among the most effective measures to fight violence against women.

Authorities should also ensure that police and prosecutors are directed to investigate domestic violence and bring cases to trial and get adequate training.

Criminalizing domestic violence can only go so far in tackling a problem whose causes are deep and go beyond the criminal justice system.
Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch

Given that oral testimony in domestic violence cases often provides an insufficient basis to convict, the authorities should develop guidelines on admitting other types of evidence in domestic violence cases, such as victim statements, expert witnesses, and medical, photographic, and physical evidence. The government should increase the availability of essential services – including shelters – for domestic violence victims.

“Criminalizing domestic violence can only go so far in tackling a problem whose causes are deep and go beyond the criminal justice system,” Whitson said. “This is why adopting the 2015 Algerian law on domestic violence should jump-start a process of carrying out comprehensive measures to put an end to this plague."

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