(Beirut) - Algerian authorities are cracking down on the protest movement known as “the Hirak,” which opposes holding the presidential elections scheduled for December 12, 2019, arresting hundreds of activists and imprisoning scores for protests or waving flags, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the campaign officially opened on November 17, at least eight protesters have been convicted and imprisoned and 15 others are in pretrial detention on the vague charges of “compromising the integrity of the territory,” “distributing publications harmful to the national interest” or “calling for an unauthorized gathering.”
“The crackdown on protesters casts a long shadow on whether the Algerian authorities are prepared to accept everyone’s basic rights to speak out,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should be arrested simply for waving a flag or expressing their opposition to an election.”
The Hirak began holding massive street demonstrations in February to oppose President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term. After successfully pressuring him to resign, large numbers of protesters continued to take to the streets to demand the departure of the entire ruling elite and an inclusive transition toward genuinely democratic elections.
More than 120 protesters arrested since June for their role in the Hirak movement have either been sentenced and sent to prison or are in pretrial detention, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, created on August 26 by activists and lawyers to defend arrested protesters.
Kaci Tansaout, a spokesperson for the group, told Human Rights Watch that the committee had recorded at least 300 arrests since the beginning of the electoral campaign. Tansaout said that while most people were released the same day, eight have been imprisoned after trial.
On September 15, Abdelkader Bensalah, the speaker of the upper house of Parliament who replaced President Bouteflika upon his resignation, announced that presidential elections would take place on December 12. Those elections, originally set for April 18, had been postponed until July 4 and then postponed again. The Hirak protesters maintain that Bouteflika-era figures have no legitimacy to organize the elections on their own or call for a more inclusive process to prepare for the vote.
Five candidates have qualified for the December 12 vote.
On December 3, Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune, speaking before parliament’s upper chamber, accused election opponents of perpetuating a “colonial” mentality, and called them “traitors, mercenaries, deviants and homosexuals.”
The eight people reported sentenced to prison terms in recent weeks include Ghoumari Isehaq, Riyahi Smail, Medeledj Sid Ahmed and Ben Sahla Sid Ahmed, who were arrested in Tlemcen on November 17 while protesting outside of the hall where Ali Benflis, a presidential candidate was holding a rally. The next day, a first instance court in Tlemcen sentenced them to 18 months in prison.
Ali Slimani was arrested on November 19 in a demonstration in Algiers and sentenced to two years in prison the next day by the first instance court in Bab el Oued. Abdelkader Boumzareg, arrested on November 22, was sentenced two days later to two months in prison by the first instance court of Hadjout, Tipaza. Yacine Elouareth and Taoufik Karfa, both arrested on November 20 in Algiers during a night protest, were sentenced on November 24 to one year in prison by the first instance tribunal of Bab el Oued in Algiers.
All eight activists were sentenced for one or more of the following three charges: “compromising the integrity of the national territory,” “distributing documents harmful to the national interest,” and “calling for an unarmed gathering” under articles 79, 96 and 97, respectively, of the penal code, stemming from their participation in peaceful protests, said Abderrahmane Salah, a lawyer who has been following the cases. None was charged with any violent act.
Fifteen other activists have been sent to pre-charge detention since November 17, on the same charges by various first instance courts, Tansaout said.
Mustapha Atoui, president of the National Association against Corruption, which exposes and combats corruption in Algeria, told Human Rights Watch that plain-clothes police arrested Halim Feddal, the group’s secretary general, on November 17 as he participated in what Atoui said was a peaceful demonstration in front of the Chlef first instance court to protest the detention of other Hirak movement protesters.
The police searched Feddal’s house, seized his computer, and detained him until November 19, when a prosecutor of the Chlef first instance court charged him under penal code articles 79, 96, and 97. An investigative judge at the same court ordered his pretrial detention in the Chlef prison.
On November 22, police arrested Fouad Ouicher, interim secretary general of the association Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ), an association active in the protest movement, and Saida Deffeur, a member of the association’s branch in Tizi Ouzou. Kamel Nemmiche, a member of group’s executive bureau, told Human Rights Watch that the two were arrested in front of its office in Algiers after they participated in the weekly Friday protest.
On November 24, a prosecutor of the Sidi M’hamed first instance court charged both Ouicher and Deffeur with “compromising the integrity of the national territory” and “distributing publications harmful to the national interest,” under articles 79 and 96 of the penal code. An investigative judge of the first instance court of Sidi M’hamed in Algiers issued a detention order against Ouicher. He releases Deffeur but placed her under judicial control, requiring her to sign in once a week at the court. Eleven members of the group are being held in El Harrach prison, including its president, Abdelwhahab Farsaoui, and one of its founders, Hakim Addad.
In November, the First Instance court of Sidi M’hamed in Algiers sentenced at least 49 protesters to up to one year in prison on the charge of “compromising the integrity of the national territory,” for possessing or waving the Amazigh flag, a symbol of the large ethnic community of the same name. Before the Hirak protest movement in 2019, Algerians had generally been free to wave the Amazigh flag in public. The 49 had been held in detention since being arrested in Algiers at various times since June.
On November 11, the court sentenced seven flag-wavers to one year in prison, suspending six of the terms. On November 12, it convicted 22 other flag-wavers and sentenced them to one year in jail, with six months suspended. On November 25, the same tribunal sentenced 20 protesters to six months in prison for waving the flag.
Human Rights Watch reviewed one of the verdicts against seven flag-waving protesters who were arrested on June 21 during a Friday demonstration. It said that the protesters were arrested separately that day for waving or possessing the flag and interrogated at various police stations in Algiers.
The court convicted them all under article 79 for “compromising the national unity” and in doing so, invoked article 75 of the Algerian Constitution, which states that it is the duty of every citizen to safeguard Algeria’s “integrity of its territory and unity of its people.” The court held that Algeria has only one national flag as defined in the Constitution and that waving others could threaten its national unity.
The government should immediately free everyone detained or imprisoned for peaceful protest, including those who waved the Amazigh flag or expressed their opposition to the December 12 election, as these are acts of peaceful expression protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989, Human Rights Watch said.