(Beirut) – An Algerian human rights lawyer is facing charges and restrictions on his activities, apparently for exercising his right to free speech, Human Rights Watch said today.
Salah Dabouz, a former president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), is facing a trial for Facebook posts in which he criticized the prosecution of members of the country’s Mozabite ethnic minority. A court has also ordered him to report three times a week to authorities in Ghardaia, 600 kilometers from his home in Algiers. The Algerian authorities should drop all charges against him that are based solely on the exercise of his free speech rights and end the onerous reporting requirement.
“Algerian authorities should stop using repressive laws and crippling sign-in orders intended to shut down criticism of their conduct,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Police in Algiers arrested Dabouz on April 7, 2019 and transported him the same day to Ghardaia, where judges of the first instance court notified him of two pending cases related to his Facebook posts. The judges released him provisionally but placed him under judicial control, obliging him to sign in twice a week at the court. Later in April, they increased the reporting requirement to three times a week, Dabouz told Human Rights Watch.
Dabouz said that he faces a total of 14 counts. The case files include a Facebook post from March 28 in which Dabouz says he will inform the United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance of what he called the politicized prosecutorial policy of the judiciary in Ghardaia and its discriminatory prosecutions against Mozabites.
The case files include another Facebook post, dated September 13, 2018, in which Dabouz attacks “bogus” charges against Mozabites and comments that the “judiciary in Ghardaia produces wonders and strange decisions that result in innocent people filling the prisons.” The charges against Dabouz include incitement to an armed gathering, contempt of court, offense to the president of the Republic, defamation of state institutions, attempting to pressure judges on pending cases, forming a criminal gang to commit crimes, incitement to hatred or discrimination, compromising the integrity of the national territory, distributing material harmful to the national interest, defamation of individuals, and communicating secrets to an outside party, under articles 100, 144, 144 bis, 146, 147, 176, 295 bis, 79, 96, 296, and 302 of the penal code.
Nothing in the evidence available to Human Rights Watch suggests that Dabouz has incited anyone to violence or racial hatred, or that his criticism of the Algerian judiciary amounts to an improper effort to pressure the courts.
Dabouz told Human Rights Watch that the court-imposed check-in requirement in Ghardaia prior to his trial severely disrupts his personal and professional life. No date has been set for the start of his trials.
Dabouz faces a third trial based on a 2016 case against him. In that year, authorities charged him shortly after he denounced the prison conditions for Kameleddine Fekhar, former president of the Ghardaia section of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, and his codefendants, who were on trial for their alleged role in the deadly ethnic clashes that erupted in the Ghardaia 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 equipped with a camera into Ghardaia prison. The court placed him under judicial supervision from July 2016 until March 2017. Dabouz was notified, during his appearance on April 8, 2019 at the First Instance Court in Ghardaia, of his conviction in absentia and one-year prison sentence in that case. Dabouz said that he had not been notified of the trial. He sought a rehearing of the case because he had been tried in absentia, and it is scheduled to open on May 21.
Governments may restrict speech to shield courts from improper influence and to preserve the integrity, and in some cases the confidentiality, of proceedings. However, any such restrictions must be narrowly defined in law so as not to turn any criticism of the judiciary or its decisions into a potentially punishable offense.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on April 23, 2015, in the Morice v. France case, that the European Convention on Human Rights’ restrictions on speaking about courts cannot be used to enforce general limitations on “remarks on the functioning of the judiciary, even in the context of proceedings that are still pending.” The court ruled that it must be possible “to draw the public’s attention to potential shortcomings in the justice system.” Protecting the judiciary from unfounded attacks “cannot have the effect of prohibiting individuals from expressing their views, through value judgments with a sufficient factual basis, on matters of public interest related to the functioning of the justice system, or of banning any criticism of the latter.”
In a resolution on Algeria passed on April 28, 2015, 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.