(Beirut) – Algerian authorities have imposed arbitrary travel bans on at least three activists from the Algerian diaspora, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. Although one of the three was finally permitted to leave on May 5, 2022, after being blocked for three months, the authorities should immediately lift the bans on the other two.
Between January and April 2022, the authorities have prevented at least three Algerian-Canadian citizens, only one of whom has been charged, from returning to their homes in Canada and interrogated them about their links to the Hirak, a mass protest movement calling for political change. Lazhar Zouaimia, Hadjira Belkacem, and a third person who asked not to be named for security reasons, said that they had not been notified of any legal basis for the travel restrictions, making them difficult to challenge in court. The travel bans are the latest tactic in a crackdown on Algerians suspected of criticizing the government or participating in protests.
“It is appalling that the Algerian authorities are preventing activists from going back to their country of residence, without even providing a legal basis for this refusal or a written justification,” said Amna Guellali, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International. “All arbitrary travel bans should immediately be lifted.”
On February 19 and again on April 9, border police prevented Lazhar Zouaimia, 56, a member of Amnesty International in Canada who works as a technician at a public electricity utility in Quebec, from boarding a plane to Montreal.
In his April attempt at Houari Boumediene Airport in Algiers, Zouaimia was accompanied by two representatives from the Canadian embassy and his lawyer. An Algerian law enforcement officer took Zouaimia aside and kept him in an office at the airport for hours, then released him. The authorities also blocked Zouaimia from boarding another flight the same day to Barcelona.
After Zouamia’s earlier attempt to leave Algeria in February, a court initially charged him with terrorism and later changed the charge to “harming the integrity of the national territory,” a vague accusation that authorities have used extensively to punish peaceful Hirak activists. He spent five weeks in detention before a court provisionally released him pending his trial.
One of Zouaimia’s lawyers, Abdel Halim Khairedine, said that a clerk at the Court of Constantine, where Zouaimia is being prosecuted, informed Khairedine that the court had imposed no travel restrictions on his client.
The notification of release for Zouaimia from the General Directorate of the Administration of Prisons and Rehabilitation, reviewed by Amnesty International, does not indicate that he is subjected to a court-ordered travel ban.
Another of Zouaimia’s lawyers filed a request with the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Court of Algiers on April 13 to check whether another court had imposed a travel ban on him but had received no reply as of April 29.
When Zouaimia tried to leave in February, law enforcement officers in civilian clothes detained him at Constantine airport. An officer from the judicial police at the airport told Zouaimia to hand over his phone, without showing him an order from the prosecutor. Zouaimia gave the officer his phone, which was not password protected.
Police then transferred Zouaimia to the military barracks in Constantine. They questioned him about his participation in Montreal in the Hirak protest movement and his alleged connections with the Movement for the Self-determination of Kabylie (MAK) and Rachad, an opposition political movement. The authorities have used broadly worded terrorism-related charges to criminalize the activities of these two political organizations by designating them “terrorists.”
On February 22, a judge in the Court of Constantine ordered Zouaimia’s pretrial detention on charges of praising and funding a terrorist organization, under article 87 bis of the penal code. Zouaimia was provisionally released on March 30. On April 6, a judge in the same court changed the accusation to “harming the integrity of the national territory” under article 79 of the penal code. His trial is scheduled for May 31. The authorities have not returned his phone.
Zouaimia was finally able to leave Algeria to return to Canada on May 5.
In another case, Hadjira Belkacem, 52, traveled to Algeria on January 19. On February 25, the border police at the Houari Boumediene Airport prevented her from leaving the country for Montreal. Belkacem told Human Rights Watch that she has not taken part in the Hirak but is known as an activist among Algerians living in Montreal. Law enforcement officers in civilian clothes at the airport interrogated her and held her for several hours.
Belkacem was then transferred to the headquarters of the National Police in Algiers to be questioned again. Police officers there asked about her alleged connections to the Hirak protest movement and to Rachad, and about the Association of Muslim Burial in Quebec (l’Association de la Sépulture musulmane au Québec), a charity that she founded in Canada. They released her at 2:30 a.m. the following day, she told Human Rights Watch.
Belkacem hired a lawyer, who found no charges pending against her. He contacted the prosecutor of the Dar Beida court in Algiers to ask about the travel ban, but has not received an answer, she said on May 3.
Belkacem has been living in Canada with her family for 16 years and works as a childcare educator.
On February 10, border police at the Algiers airport prevented a third person, who asked not to be identified, from boarding a plane. He was transferred to a police station in Algiers, where he was interrogated in the office of the counterterrorism unit about his family, his personal relationships, and if he had collected money to support the Hirak. The police then released him without telling him that there were any charges against him.
On March 24, in response to a request filed by his lawyer, the first instance tribunal of the eastern city of Setif issued a notice, reviewed by Amnesty International, confirming that no formal ban to leave the national territory had been issued against him. He is awaiting more information from his lawyer before he attempts to leave the country again.
Law enforcement officers in civilian clothes had previously arrested him on January 28 with his brother on a street in Setif. The officers took the men to an unknown location, where security service officers interrogated him for a few hours about the Hirak, his personal finances, and the reasons he was protesting for political change in Algeria. The two men were released later that day, but he was summoned for questioning to the central police station of Setif again on January 29 and 30.
“The Algerian authorities are using arbitrary travel bans as a means to pressure diaspora activists in Canada and elsewhere,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These unjustified measures put diaspora Algerians who go home to visit in a precarious situation with no clear legal remedies.”