Algeria’s authorities have jailed dozens of people for peaceful protests in the six months since the beginning of a wave of street demonstrations that forced the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities have arrested people for peacefully carrying a flag or a protest sign. They jailed a veteran of the independence war for criticizing the army, shut down meetings by political and other nongovernmental groups, and blocked a major news website. While large street protests have continued every Friday, police forces have deployed massively in Algiers’ central streets and squares and at checkpoints, effectively limiting the number of people who can reach the march, and then tightly controlling those who do.
“The Algerian authorities initially tolerated the protests by millions of people that began in February to demand political reform,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But Algeria’s authorities are now turning the vise, jailing flag-wavers and turning back would-be marchers.”
After President Bouteflika resigned on April 2, 2019, Senate President Abdelkader Bensalah replaced him, pending new elections, as provided by the constitution. The authorities set a new presidential election for July 4, but then postponed it to an undetermined date after pressure from street protesters, who demand a democratic transition before holding presidential elections. Popular slogans during the marches demand the resignations of Bensalah and of Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, among others.
Since the resignation of Bouteflika, one of his high-level appointees, Ahmed Gaid Salah, 79, the army chief of staff and deputy defense minister, has widely been considered Algeria’s new strongman. On August 26, Gaid Salah rejected the protesters’ demand for a transitional structure and phase and urged the authorities to organize a presidential election “as soon as possible.”
Since April, Gaid Salah has warned of “foreign parties” seeking to “infiltrate demonstrations” and “destabilize Algeria.” On June 19, he gave a public speech in which he accused “a small minority of people who bear other flags [than the Algerian flag]” of “infiltrating the protests.”
Starting June 21, security forces began large-scale arrests throughout the country, targeting marchers with Amazigh flags, a symbol of the large ethnic community of the same name, also known as Berbers. About 40 protesters remain in custody, most in Algiers. All are under investigation for “harming the integrity of the national territory,” which carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison, under penal code Article 79.
Waving a flag of an ethnic community is an act of peaceful expression protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Algeria should free and drop charges against anyone arrested for possessing or waving a flag, Human Rights Watch said.
On July 9, a first instance court near Algiers sentenced Mouaffak Serdouk, a 40-year-old supporter of Algeria’s football team, to a year in prison for “publicly displaying a paper that can harm the national interest.” He had been deported from Egypt two weeks earlier, after Egyptian authorities arrested him in Cairo. He had stood near a stadium where the Algeria team was playing a football match, carrying a sign encouraging a change in administrations in Algeria. He is in prison in Algiers and has appealed his conviction.
On June 30, police arrested 87-year old Lakhdar Bouregaa, a prominent veteran of Algeria’s independence war, at his home in Algiers, four days after he said at a public meeting, later broadcast on YouTube, that Algeria’s army is a collection of “militias.”
A prosecutor referred his case to an investigative judge, who opened an investigation for “weakening the morale of the army,” which could lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Bouregaa, one of the few surviving commanders of the war of independence, has supported the street protests since they started in February. He has participated in several demonstrations, and severely criticized the country’s interim leaders.
On August 27, local authorities forbade a series of meetings planned near the city of Bejaia by the Rassemblement Action Jeunesse (RAJ), a group active in pro-democracy protests since they started. The authorities did not explain their decision, RAJ president Abdelouhab Fersaoui told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
On September 5, local authorities arrested over 20 pro-democracy and human rights activists who were planning to hold a RAJ meeting in a public square in Bejaia. They were freed about 3 hours later, and the meeting could not take place.
On August 27, without explanation, the authorities ordered three opposition parties to cancel a planned joint meeting in Algiers the next day. The parties, the Socialist Forces Front, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, and the Labour Party, are members of the Forces of the Democratic Alternative, a political alliance created to back the protesters’ call for a democratic transition. The meeting was to be the alliance’s inaugural gathering.
Since June 12, Tout Sur l’Algérie (TSA), one of the country’s top independent news websites, has been inaccessible most of the time inside Algeria, except for those who use a virtual private network connection. TSA Director Hamid Guemache told Human Rights Watch during a meeting in Algiers on August 5: “This is an arbitrary block ordered by the authorities. We tried to contact the government to get explanations, but they refused to answer our questions. This blockage is a serious threat to our survival as an independent website.”
TSA has extensively covered the street protest movement, including the protesters’ criticism of the army in general, and Gaid Salah in particular.
Since the first protests in February, security forces have tolerated large gatherings in public spaces on Fridays, the day during which the biggest demonstrations are organized weekly. However, security forces tightly control crowds that assemble on other days.
On August 6, a Tuesday, Human Rights Watch witnessed hundreds of security men equipped with anti-riot gear circling a crowd of protesters in central Algiers and progressively pushing it out of Place de La Grande Poste, breaking the crowd into smaller and smaller groups until the protest dissolved about one hour after it started.
On Fridays, security forces install checkpoints at various approaches to the capital, significantly slowing down drivers who want to reach the protest sites. Several people told Human Rights Watch that security forces prevented most vehicles from entering the capital during most of the day, until the protests had died down. During Friday protests, authorities also suspend subway service in Algiers and close tramway, train, and bus stations near the protest sites.
On August 19, Algerian authorities detained a Human Rights Watch employee, Ahmed Benchemsi, as he was observing the Friday march on Didouche Mourad Avenue in downtown Algiers. The authorities detained him for 10 hours and seized his passports, holding them for 10 days without notifying him of any charge, then deported him. According to Reporters Without Borders, several foreign journalists have been deported since April, including the director of the AFP bureau in Algiers and correspondents of Reuters and TRT, a Turkish state-owned broadcaster.
“As authorities violate rights and intensify their crackdown on dissent, protesters are starting to prepare for bigger marches in September,” Fakih said. “The authorities should step back and grant the Algerian people the freedoms of expression and assembly they are entitled to.”
In Prison for Waving a Flag
About 40 protesters remain in jail after security forces arrested them in Algiers, Annaba, Chlef, and other Algerian cities, most of them on June 21 and 28, because they were waving or carrying Amazigh flags. More than 30 of them are being held in Algiers, based on estimates by Abderrahmane Salah, a lawyer representing many of the protesters and also the secretary general of the Network of Human Rights Lawyers, an Algerian nongovernmental group.
Investigative judges placed them under investigation for “harming the integrity of the national territory,” an offense punishable by a prison term of between one and ten years, under penal code Article 79.
Under the code of penal procedure, investigative judges’ inquiries can last up to four months, renewable twice, after which the suspects should be freed or sent to trial.
On June 19, Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff, said in a speech in the southwestern city of Bechar: “Algeria has only one flag that represents its sovereignty, its independence, and its territorial integrity … Orders were given to security forces to firmly enforce the law and counter all those who will try again to harm the feelings of the Algerian people on this sensitive question.”
Gaid Salah didn’t specify which law he was referring to. A couple days after the speech, police forces started to arrest people holding Amazigh flags across the country.
Carrying Amazigh flags and pro-Amazigh activism have been commonplace in Algeria since the early 1980s. Some activists focus on promoting Amazigh culture, while some demand greater political autonomy for the Kabyle-majority regions, and others advocate independence. Although demands for autonomy or independence have been contentious, Algerian authorities have not in recent years treated carrying an Amazigh flag as a crime.
On August 8, a judge in the eastern city of Annaba acquitted Nadir Fertissi, a protester, on the charge of “harming the integrity of the national territory” and ordered the police to return to him two Amazigh flags they seized when they arrested him on July 5. Fertissi spent one month in pretrial detention.
Jailed for a Sign
On June 23, Egyptian police arrested Mouaffak Serdouk, a 40-year-old Algerian supporter of Algeria’s football team, in Cairo, outside of a stadium where Algeria was playing in the African Cup of Nations tournament. Serdouk was carrying a sign with the slogan “No God but God; Yetnehaw Ga’.” The second part of the slogan, which means “They Must All Leave” in Algerian dialect, is a trademark slogan of Algeria’s current protest movement, and refers to top officials under former president Bouteflika who are believed to retain effective power.
Egyptian authorities held Serdouk for two days then forcibly expelled him on June 25. Algerian police arrested Serdouk when he landed in Algiers and referred him to the prosecutor of Dar El Bayda, the district that includes the airport.
On July 9, a court sentenced him to one year in prison for “publicly displaying a paper that can harm the national interest,” under Article 96 of the penal code. Serdouk filed an appeal, but the date for the appeals trial is yet to be set.
Serdouk’s conviction violates his right to freedom of expression. The article under which he was convicted, moreover, violates a fundamental requirement under human rights law that criminal laws should define offenses with sufficient precision for people to reasonably predict when they are violating those laws.
War Veteran Jailed for Peaceful Comments
Since he was arrested in Algiers on June 30, Lakhdar Bouregaa, a prominent veteran of the war of independence, has remained in custody, under investigation for “weakening the morale of the army during peacetime in order to harm national defense,” which Article 75 of the penal code punishes with a prison term of 5 to 10 years.
On June 26, during a meeting organized by a coalition of political parties in Algiers, Bouregaa said that Algeria’s army is a collection of “militias” created to serve “the 1962 regime” rather than “the offspring of the National Liberation Army.” His comment came in the context of longstanding disputes over the legacy of various factions within the rebel army that won independence for Algeria from France in 1962.
The criminal investigation is based chiefly on this comment, one of Bouregaa’s lawyers, Abderrahmane Salah, told Human Rights Watch. On July 4, the accusation chamber at the Court of Algiers refused to release Bouregaa on bail. He remains in prison pending completion of the judge’s investigation, which can take up to one year before the court must provisionally release him.
Bouregaa is one of the few surviving commanders of the National Liberation Army. He is a founder of the opposition Socialist Forces Front party and was a political prisoner in the 1970s under President Houari Boumedienne. His frequent media appearances make Bouregaa a familiar figure to Algerians, some of whom call him “Uncle Lakhdar.” On August 2 and again on August 6, a Human Rights Watch researcher heard crowds of demonstrators in Algiers chanting “Free Bouregaa!” Similar slogans were chanted in street protests in Algiers on August 30.
Leading News Site Blocked, Targeted
On June 12, Tout Sur l’Algerie, a leading independent news site in Algeria, announced that its IP addresses were blocked. Since then, the news website’s staff has run several technical tests and observed that, while the website was inaccessible within Algeria, except for short and random periods of accessibility, it was accessible without interruption for users outside Algeria and those using a VPN address, which allows them to connect to the national internet network from a foreign IP address.
Their communiqué denounced the blockage as an “act of censorship against independent media,” adding that “the old practices of the authorities have not stopped.”
TSA, one of the few websites that were openly critical of then-President Bouteflika and his administration, encountered similar obstructions in 2017. On October 5 of that year, its managers observed that the site was inaccessible on Algérie Telecom and Mobilis, two internet providers owned by the government, but still accessible on private networks. Twenty days later, then-Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia answered a question on the partial blockage of the news website by saying that the site managers should “contact their (hosting service) provider to determine the cause of the breakdown.” In December 2017, the site was accessible again from those two networks.
TSA Director Hamid Guemache told Human Rights Watch on August 5 that his website receives no advertising from the State-controlled ANEP agency, which has a monopoly on advertising spending by state-owned companies. ANEP controls a considerable part of the advertisement market in Algeria, Guemache said.