(Beirut) – The Algerian authorities should immediately release human rights defenders, civil society activists, opposition figures, journalists, and all others arbitrarily imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to speak and assemble, Human Rights Watch said today.
Three years after the movement known as the “Hirak” began its massive weekly peaceful street marches for political reform, the authorities are holding at least 280 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, who are facing or convicted on the basis of vague charges. Some face charges of terrorism based on a definition so broad that it is arbitrary. This number has soared over the past year, while the authorities have also moved against associations and political parties deemed supportive of the Hirak.
“Algerian authorities should release the hundreds of people imprisoned for their peaceful speech or pro-Hirak activism,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Piling on dubious charges of ‘terrorism’ and vague charges like ‘harming national unity’ cannot hide the fact that this is about crushing the critical voices of a peaceful reform movement.”
On February 22, 2019, millions of Algerians marched through Algiers and other cities to oppose a fifth term for the country’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The protesters marched through the streets every Friday thereafter and came to be known as the Hirak (Arabic for “movement”). They forced Bouteflika’s resignation in April 2019. But when the movement opposed plans later that year to hold presidential elections without first putting reforms in place, the authorities began to arrest the perceived leaders of the informal movement.
The crackdown intensified after the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president in December 2019, though the mass marches halted in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Around the second anniversary of Hirak, in February 2021, the protests resumed, but lost momentum three months later, due to repression and a weakening of the movement.
According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), created in August 2019 by activists and lawyers to monitor arrests and trials, at least 280 people are currently imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions, most of them in relation to the Hirak. The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (Ligue Algérienne pour la défense des droits de l’Homme, LADDH) estimated that the number in custody was 330 as of February 5, 2022.
Ahead of the Hirak anniversary, at least 40 people who were held in Algiers’ El Harrach prison began a hunger strike on January 28 to protest what they considered their arbitrary detention, the Collective for the Defense of Prisoners of Conscience, a lawyers group, said. Most strikers are people in pre-trial detention who have been awaiting trial for months.
According to the Collective for the Defense of Prisoners of Conscience, the authorities transferred more than 20 hunger-strikers from El Harrach to Said Abid prison in Bouira, east of Algiers, and Berrouaghia, southwest of Algiers. “We consider that the transfer of these prisoners to other prisons aims on the one hand to punish them and, on the other hand, to quash this movement,” Abdelghani Badi, a lawyer and Collective member, told El Watan daily.
One of the hunger strikers is Hassan Bouras, a journalist and member of the human rights league based in the western city of El Bayadh, one of his lawyers told Human Rights Watch. He was arrested on September 6, 2021. He is accused of “undermining national unity,” “offending public bodies,” and “spreading false information,” the lawyer said, but also “membership in a terrorist group,” “apology for terrorism,” and “conspiracy against state security,” among other charges, in connection with his Facebook posts. Bouras, who was imprisoned previously for his criticism of the Algerian government, currently faces several court cases.
On June 2021, President Tebboune amended the penal code by presidential decree, expanding Algeria’s already overbroad definition of “terrorism” in article 87 to include “to work for or to incite by any means, to accede to power or change the system of governance by non-constitutional means”; and to “harm the integrity of national territory or to incite doing so, by an means.”
The authorities have used this article to prosecute an increasing number of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.
Most recently, on January 24, they arrested Abdelkrim Zeghilèche, an activist who directs the Constantine radio station Sarbacane. He is accused of “apology for terrorism,” “using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas,” and “disseminating information that could harm the national interest,” in connection with his Facebook posts and speech in the media, his brother, Abdelmoumen Zeghilèche, told Human Rights Watch. Abdelkrim Zeghilèche had previously been imprisoned for his opinions during the Hirak.
The authorities are also targeting pro-Hirak opposition political parties. On January 20, the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Algeria, ordered the temporary suspension of the activities of the Socialist Workers' Party (Parti socialiste des travailleurs, PST) and the closure of its premises in Algiers. This decision followed a complaint against the party filed by the Interior Ministry on April 26, 2021, for allegedly failing to hold its annual congress as required in its by-laws and Law No. 12-04 on Political Parties.
“[The suspension] is about making our party pay for its political positions and its resolute commitments within the Hirak against repression and alongside social struggles,” the party said. It was legally recognized in 1989, when the authorities first allowed a multiparty system, but had existed before unofficially.
The suspension order came despite the fact the party had held its congress on April 24, 2021, and delivered the required documents to the Interior Ministry, Samir Larabi, a party official, told Human Rights Watch.
On January 20, the Council of State rejected a similar request from the Interior Ministry to suspend another opposition party, the Union for Change and Progress (UCP) led by the Zoubida Assoul, a lawyer. However, the party is still waiting for the court to rule on a petition the interior minister filed seeking to dissolve it.
The secularist opposition parties Democratic and Social Movement (MDS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) are in the authorities' sights as well. The MDS coordinator, Fethi Ghares, 48, was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 200,000 Algerian dinars (US$1,420) on January 9, 2021, for “offending public bodies,” “calling for a gathering,” and “disseminating information that could harm the national interest,” in connection with political statements he made online, his wife, Messaouda Cheballah, told Human Rights Watch.
On January 6, the RCD received a notice from the Interior Ministry accusing it of not complying with Law No. 12-04 on Political Parties by organizing "activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws.” This notice came after a meeting on December 24, 2021, at RCD headquarters in Algiers that several activists attended to call for the creation of a front against repression and for freedoms.
As for civil society organizations, a court dissolved the pro-Hirak Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ) on October 13, following an Interior Ministry complaint that its activities were contrary to the objectives listed by the Law No. 12-06 related to associations and the group’s by-laws. The RAJ is a prominent organization created in 1992 to promote cultural activities, human rights, and the values of citizenship.
In addition, the cultural association SOS Beb El Oued in Algiers ceased its activities and its premises have been closed since the General Directorate of National Security (DGSN) in April 2021 searched its office and confiscated materials. The president of this well-known local association, Nacer Meghnine, was sentenced in November to one year in prison for “undermining national unity and national interest” among other charges in relation with the association’s activities.
All these parties and organizations actively participated in the Hirak. They are members of (PAD), an alliance of opposition forces that emerged in June 2019 during the protest movement.