(Beirut, April 19, 2019) Algerian authorities have resumed forcibly dispersing peaceful demonstrations and arbitrarily detaining protesters in the capital, Algiers, Human Rights Watch said today. The government crackdown is an apparent attempt to curb the massive pro-democracy marches that have taken place weekly since February 2019 and forced the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2.
Algerian authorities should rescind the 2001 decree banning all demonstrations in Algiers and allow people to exercise their right to peaceful assembly anywhere in Algeria, Human Rights Watch said.
“Algerians have continued to assert their right to peaceful assembly in recent weeks despite growing police efforts to crack down on them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Protesters report being arrested, strip searched, handled roughly, and detained for hours.”
The protest movement first formed to oppose a presidential run by the ailing Bouteflika for a fifth five-year term in elections originally scheduled for April. On April 10, the Algerian parliament confirmed upper house speaker Abdelkader Ben Salah as interim president for 90 days. Ben Salah announced that a new presidential election would be held on July 4.
Security forces have responded inconsistently to the protests. On February 22 and on subsequent days, the security forces dispersed street rallies and arbitrarily arrested dozens of protesters, detaining some for hours, then releasing them without charge. Then in March, security forces allowed huge marches in the capital each Friday, with only minimal interference.
During April, security forces forcibly blocked smaller sit-ins and protests held on other days of the week. Three activists told Human Rights Watch that security forces on April 6, a Saturday, dispersed a small gathering of veterinarians in downtown Algiers who were denouncing conditions for granting public funds to animal shelters.
Abbane Meziane, a journalist with the daily Al Watan, told Human Rights Watch that he saw the security forces pushing into the gathering and chasing protesters from the steps of the post office. The police immediately arrested those who resisted and forced them into police vans. When police ordered Meziane to leave, he refused, saying he was a journalist doing his job. They arrested him together with eight protesters and took them to the Cavaignac police station, holding them for hours.
On April 9, police used water cannons to disperse a big student demonstration at la Grande Poste, according to media reports.
On April 13, police stopped several activists as they attempted to reach a sit-in planned for 5 p.m. in the plaza in front of la Grande Poste. Djalal Mokrani, an activist from Rassemblement Action Jeunesse (Youth Action Rally RAJ), a human rights and cultural association, said that he intended to join the planned sit-in and that it had been planned to prevent security forces from closing down space for peaceful protests.
“I was walking through the street leading to the plaza when a commander who recognized me ordered the police to arrest me,” he said. “Around 15 officers surrounded me, shoved me to the ground, and beat my legs. Then they forced me into a police van while insulting me and kicking me.”
He said that the police forced him into a van along with nine other people, confiscated their phones, and transported them to the Baraki police station, 20 kilometers from Algiers. The police kept them there from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., then released them.
Amal (who asked not to disclose her last name), 27, a RAJ activist, was among those arrested in that group. She said police in uniform arrested her together with 9 other activists from RAJ and the Democratic and Social Movement (Mouvement Démocratique et Social, MDS), a political party. She said that at 9 p.m., the police told the women to enter a room, one by one, where a woman who said she was a police officer said she would conduct a body search.
“She asked me to strip completely,” she said. “She said that if I don’t take off all my clothes, including my underwear, I would not get released that night. I was shocked but didn’t want to resist too much, as I was afraid of prison. When I was naked, she touched my body in a rough way, including my breasts and intimate parts.”
She said the other women told her that they were also told to undress and be searched. Another activist, Hania Chaâbane, from the MDS, released a video on her Facebook account on April 15, in which she says that at Baraki station, a police woman had her strip to her underpants, then inspected her body.
The security services of the Algiers governorate stated that the body search was a routine check for any object that could be used to inflict harm on oneself or others. However, both Chaâbane and Amal said that police searched all of the women, but none of the men. Mokrani confirmed that neither he nor the other five men were strip-searched.
Abdelghani Badi, a lawyer who defended many male and female protesters arbitrarily arrested by the police during the last wave of demonstrations, said that the police conduct strip searches usually only for certain types of crimes such as drug or violent offenses.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Nelson Mandela Rules) provides that “Searches shall not be used to harass, intimidate or unnecessarily intrude upon a prisoner’s privacy.” The alleged mistreatment of the women detainees, including unjustifiable touching of their bodies, could amount to a form of sexual assault prohibited under international law.
At the most recent Friday demonstration, on April 12, numerous demonstrators gathered for much of the day on Didouche Mourad, one of the main avenues in downtown Algiers, and on the avenues leading to La Grande Poste. At about 5 p.m., security forces started using teargas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators on Didouche Mourad.
Abdelwahab Farsaoui, president of RAJ, said that he was in the middle of the demonstration on the avenue, where thousands of people were chanting anti-government slogans. He said he heard explosions that he identified as coming from teargas canisters and started inhaling teargas. From where he was standing, Farsaoui said he observed no violence from the protesters at that time.
Videos filmed by Khaled Drarni that day show that police made extensive use of teargas on Didouche Mourad and also in the nearby Place Audin. Media reported clashes between protesters and the police later the same day.