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(Beirut) – Algerian authorities sealed the premises of two women’s rights associations on February 27 on the grounds that they were not registered, Human Rights Watch said today. The groups were allowed to reopen “temporarily” on March 5.

Seals on the locks of the association Algerian Women Claiming their Rights (Femmes Algériennes Revendiquant leurs Droits, FARD).  © 2018 Private

While the two organizations registered legally, one in 1989 and the other in 1996, authorities have since required associations to re-register under a 2012 law and refused to renew their legal status, without providing an explanation. Under the restrictive 2012 Law on Associations, Algerian authorities have broad discretion to withhold legal recognition from nongovernmental associations, keeping them in legal limbo.

“Algerian authorities should stop using the association law as a Damocles sword hanging over independent associations that they dislike,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The 2012 law, in article 70, requires organizations that were legally registered under the previous law to resubmit their bylaws or face dissolution. The two Oran-based groups, the Feminist Association for Personal Development and Exercise of Citizenship (Association Féministe pour l’Epanouissement de la Personne et l’Exercice de la Citoyenneté, AFEPEC) and Algerian Women Claiming their Rights (Femmes Algériennes Revendiquant leurs Droits, FARD) sent their new registration documents to the authorities in 2012 and 2014 respectively, but never received a registration receipt despite several efforts to follow up.

On February 25, the Oran governor issued a written decision, based on “reports that FARD and AFEPEC, two unlicensed associations, are pursuing their activities,” to close their premises “until they straighten out their legal situation.”

Fatma Boufenik, director of FARD’s counseling center for women victims of violence, told Human Rights Watch that the association received no prior notice of the closure.

“On February 27, colleagues and I were on duty assisting women at the counseling center,” Boufenik said. “We left at about 1 p.m. I live in that same neighborhood. When neighbors informed me that the police had come and sealed our office and the office of AFEPEC, I went and discovered that they had put seals in our lock.”

Boufenik said that FARD had been legally registered since 1996, under the 1990 law on associations. After legislators replaced that law in 2012, FARD held a general assembly on January 9, 2014, as mandated by the new law, and deposited the required documents with the Direction de l’Action Sociale (DAS), the local branch of the Ministry of National Solidarity, Family and Condition of Women, on January 29, 2014. On March 30, the group received a “deposit receipt” proving that the Wali of Oran had received the file. Human Rights Watch has reviewed that receipt. Since then, the authorities have not responded.

Malika Remaoun, vice president of AFEPEC, told Human Rights Watch that to comply with the 2012 law, the association held a general assembly on February 22, 2012 and deposited the required documents on February 29. “But we did not receive our deposit receipt until 2014, even though it was dated March 2012,” she said. “Since then, we have been asking for the normalization of our legal status, to no avail.”

On March 5, the governor of Oran allowed FARD and AFEPEC to reopen. His decision, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, stated that the reopening was only temporary, pending “the normalization of their legal status.”

Human Rights Watch has urged the Algerian government to revise the law on associations to make it consistent with international standards governing the right of association.

The 2012 law requires associations to obtain a registration receipt from authorities before they can legally operate. Authorities can refuse to register an association if they decide that the content and/or objectives of a group’s activities are contrary to Algeria’s “fundamental principles (constantes nationales) and values, public order, public morals and the applicable laws and regulations.” These vague criteria give authorities broad leeway to block a group’s legalization.

Article 8 of the new law states that the relevant administrative authority will issue a “mandatory deposit receipt” “on the spot” after checking the documents submitted by the association. The law gives the authority no discretion to refuse to accept the documents or to refuse to issue the receipt. The administration then has 30 to 60 days to decide whether to allow the registration to take effect.

The law states that “at the expiration of the deadlines mentioned above, the administration’s silence is tantamount to agreement. In this case, the administration is obliged to deliver the registration receipt.”

In practice, however, the administration has refused in some cases to issue the receipt.

Human rights organizations such as the Algerian League for Human Rights (Ligue Algérienne des Droits de l’Homme, LADDH), the Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ,), and the Algerian chapter of Amnesty International, all previously registered associations that re-submitted their documents in compliance with the 2012 law, still await their legal recognition.

The lack of legal registration hobbles associations in Algeria in many ways, including preventing them from opening a bank account or renting an office in the association’s name or renting a public hall for a meeting. Moreover, members of an association that is “non-accredited, suspended, or dissolved” risk prison sentences of up to six months for conducting activities in its name.

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