It is sadly commonplace that many countries that respect human rights the least have constitutions that respect human rights the most. Iraq’s constitution under Saddam Hussein, for example, guaranteed freedom of expression, assembly, religion, privacy, and the rest.
What’s less common is when a government decides to drop all pretense at respecting a right by expunging it from its constitution.
Algerian authorities seem to have done just that by airbrushing the right to freedom of belief, a fixture of every constitution since Algeria gained its independence in 1962, from the one adopted last November.
The new constitution does preserve the right “to practice a religion.” Under Algeria’s approach to this, Algerians are free to embrace non-Muslim faiths – though in law and practice, the country’s tiny Protestant minority has long faced discrimination.
But the rights to freedom of religion and belief under international law encompass far more. The former affirms people’s freedom to embrace heterodoxy, including in their practice of Islam, Algeria’s state religion. And freedom of belief protects people’s right to pronounce themselves secular Muslims, agnostics, or atheists, to observe, or not to observe the Ramadhan fast without being prosecuted.
These rights should protect Algeria’s 2,000-strong Ahmadi community. Because Ahmadis self-identify as Muslim, authorities have long branded them heretics and prosecuted scores for “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam” and other charges.
Freedom of belief should protect people like Yacine Mebarki, a self-described, outspoken “secular Muslim” now serving a one-year prison term after an appeals court upheld, on November 25, the charge of “denigrating” Islam, among others.
Removing a right from the constitution does not remove Algeria’s international duty to respect it. But it can make it more difficult to protect it within the country.
On February 25, scholar Said Djabelkheir will appear before the court to answer a complaint about his critical writings on Islam, filed by private citizens.
While Djabelkheir told Human Rights Watch he believes dropping freedom of belief from the constitution was a concession to Islamists, he considers his case to be less about that right than about his freedom to express himself through academic writings.
Expression and belief are two fundamental rights that frequently overlap. What’s clear is that both are beleaguered in Algeria, and the disappearance of one of them from the country’s constitution is cause for alarm.