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(Beirut) – Six human rights and political activists face prison terms for a peaceful protest in support of a human rights lawyer on trial, Human Rights Watch said today. Algerian authorities should drop all charges against the six before their new trial session, scheduled for March 20, 2018.

Authorities arrested the six on July 13, 2016, as they prepared to protest at the Ghardaia courthouse, where the lawyer, Salah Dabouz, had a court hearing. They were released the same day but were summoned in October 2017 for a hearing and charged with “incitement to a gathering of an unarmed nature,” insulting a public official, and refusing to abide by a law or decree. They are free pending trial.

“Prosecuting people who hold up banners calling for justice and respect for human rights before a courthouse is a telling illustration of Algeria’s intolerance of any public display of dissent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch.

The six defendants are Abdelkader Kherba, member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) and of the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed; Farhi Hamid, national coordinator for the Socialist Democratic Movement; Fathi Gheras, spokesperson for the group; Nedhir Dabouz, Salah Dabouz’s nephew; Chouicha Gaddour, a LADDH member and national coordinator for the Union of the United Teachers in Higher Education (Syndicat des Enseignants du Supérieur Solidaires, SESS); and Mansri Ahmed, president of the local LADDH chapter in Tiaret.

The Six activists (Abdelkader Kherba, Hamid Farhi,; Fathi Gheras, Nedhir Dabouz, Gaddour Chouicha, and Ahmed Mansri) after their release from police detention in Ghardaia, July 13, 2016. © Private

Kherba told Human Rights Watch that, on July 13, 2016, the six traveled to Ghardaia to attend Dabouz’s trial and show their solidarity against what they considered to be a politically motivated prosecution. He said that as they sat in a café close to the court at about 9 a.m., police surrounded and arrested them without giving any reason, took them to the police’s headquarters, and held them until 6 p.m.

“They asked us why we had come to attend Dabouz’s trial in Ghardaia,” he said. “They confiscated the leaflets we were carrying and then released us.”

Kherba said that on October 25, 2017, he received a summons to appear on February 2, 2018 before the Ghardaia First Instance Court. The summons, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, states that the six men are being tried for “incitement to a gathering of an unarmed nature,” insulting a public official, and refusing to abide by a law or decree, under sections 100, 144, and 459 of the penal code, respectively, which could add up to a sentence of three years in prison. On February 2, the court postponed the trial to March 20.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the indictment, issued by an investigative judge and dated October 22, 2017. It quotes the police report, which states that the police arrested the six men because they were “preparing to protest in support of Salah Dabouz, who is being prosecuted the same day in a Ghardaia court. The individuals have banners and leaflets that urge support for Dabouz, call for justice and the respect of human rights. The six individuals also took a souvenir photo in front of the café.”

The indictment also quotes the slogans on the activists’ banners. They read: “We can’t build a country by violating the rights,” “Justice: Hands off! We want the right to a defense,” and “This is a country where the mother of rights, freedom of speech, is being violated.” None of the banners cited call for violence.

The investigative judge found that the defendants “disobeyed the order banning demonstrations, marches and public gatherings, issued by the governor of Ghardaia on July 18, 2016…that bans all public gatherings based on article 459 of the Penal Code.”

The proceedings against Dabouz started shortly after he denounced the prison conditions for Kameleddine Fekhar, former president of the Ghardaia section of the LADDH, and his co-defendants, who were on trial for their alleged role in the deadly ethnic clashes that erupted in the Mzab region between 2013 and 2015.

An investigating judge summoned Dabouz on June 13, 2016, to answer accusations that he had insulted state institutions and smuggled a computer with a camera into Ghardaia prison. The court had kept him under judicial supervision from July 2016 until March 2017. Dabouz has not subsequently been brought to trial on these accusations.

Algerian authorities should respect the right to peaceful protest and stop prosecuting activists on unauthorized or unarmed gathering charges.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, both of which Algeria has ratified, require countries to protect freedom of assembly. Article 21 of the ICCPR states: “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 (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

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