Harassment of Algerian human rights defenders must end
Front Line Defenders condemns the increase in intimidation, criminalisation and attacks against human rights defenders in Algeria, including those engaged with the Hirak pro-democracy movement, in recent months. It is also alarmed by a number of recent legislative developments which exacerbate the shrinking of civic space in the country, making it increasingly difficult for human rights defenders to carry out their work. Following the resumption of the Hirak demonstrations on 13 February 2021, since their suspension due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights defenders involved in the organisation of the demonstrations and in the movement more broadly have been subjected to attacks, inhumane treatment and judicial prosecution in reprisal for their efforts to promote and protect the enjoyment of human rights in the country.
On 22 February 2021, thousands of Algerians marched throughout the country to mark the second anniversary of the “Hirak” – “Movement” in Arabic. The movement began on 22 February 2019, in opposition to the then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office and quickly gained momentum, with student marches and protests taking place every Tuesday and Friday on a national scale. Following the resignation of President Bouteflika in response to the public pressure, the movement’s aims evolved to demand the departure of the ruling elite and a transition toward more democratic governance, social justice and respect for fundamental freedoms.
The protests were initially tolerated by the authorities, however in mid-2019 prominent Hirak figures began to be arrested for allegedly “harming national unity.” The arrests continued ahead of the presidential elections in December 2019, in response to the Hirak’s demands for reforms prior to the election, which many human rights defenders and civil society actors feared would reinstate the old order.
Following his election, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune called for a “serious dialogue” with the movement, however the dialogue was never instigated. Presidential pardons for a total of 19,502 detainees were issued in February, April and July 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however only 13 Hirak members were among those released. Moreover, once the weekly demonstrations were voluntarily suspended by the protesters due to the pandemic, the prosecution and harassment of human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists saw a notable acceleration.
On 18 February 2021, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced another presidential pardon for detainees, this time including a larger number of peaceful activists linked to the Hirak. Whilst Front Line Defenders welcomes the release of 38 human rights defenders, activists, peaceful protesters and members of the Hirak movement, it remains concerned that it is still unclear as to whether the charges against them stand, and that 19 of those released were only granted conditional release. Front Line Defenders reiterates that human rights defenders should never be detained for their peaceful human rights work.
Human rights defenders and journalists targeted for their alleged affiliation to the movement or their online publications have been convicted on vague charges of the Penal Code. The charges routinely levied against them include “weakening the morale of the army” (Art.75), “inciting an unarmed gathering” (art.100), “undermining the integrity of the national territory” (Art.79) also referred to as “undermining national unity”, “offending public bodies” (art. 144; 144bis and 146) and “offense against the precepts of Islam" (article 144bis 2), all stemming from exercising their right to free speech or peaceful assembly and association. The criminalisation and harassment of human rights defenders by the Algerian authorities has continued unabated.
On 24 March 2021, the Criminal Court of El Bayadh convicted human rights defender Hassan Bouras of 'insulting the president of the republic' and 'insulting the regime', and fined him 100,000 Algerian Dinar (approximately 630 Euros). A leading member of the Algerian League of Human Rights - LADDH (Ligue Algerienne pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme), Hassan Bouras is also a journalist and blogger who has reported extensively on corruption and the practice of torture in Algeria. The human rights defender was initially detained on 2 October 2015, after several police officers raided his home and confiscated several items including mobile phones, documents and his laptop. He was detained in El Bayadh prison for almost three months before being released on 18 January 2016.
On 24 February 2021, the Appeal Court of Mostaganem upheld the conviction of workers' rights defenders Dalila Touat of the charges 'offence to public bodies’ and ’publications undermining public order'. The Court reduced the sentence against the woman human rights defender from 18 months imprisonment to two months suspended imprisonment, and a fine of 20,000 Algerian Dinar (approximately 130 Euros). Dalila Touat is part of the Hirak movement in Mostaganem and is also involved with the movement for the rights of the unemployed in the province, and advocates for improved workers’ rights in the country. The woman human rights defender was arrested in the city Mostaganem on 2 December 2020, and was convicted by the Court of First Instance on 18 January 2021. Dalila Touat was conditionally released the following day, however the suspended sentence against her remains. The woman human rights defender was reportedly subjected to ill-treatment during her imprisonment, and went on hunger strike for 21 days, demanding she be allowed family visits.
Police violence against Algerian human rights defenders and peaceful protesters has also seen an increase since the demonstrations resumed in February. On 12 March 2021, human rights defender and president of the Oran section of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) Kaddour Chouicha and his son were subjected to severe physical abuse by police officers in Oran city whilst participating in a protest organised by the Hirak. According to the human rights defender, one of the police officers tried to strangle him. Kaddour Chouicha and his wife Jamila Loulik, a journalist and woman human rights defender, are currently under prosecution for their participation in a demonstration on 8 October 2020. They were acquitted on 18 January 2021, however the prosecutor appealed. The appeal hearing is scheduled for 28 April 2021. Human rights defender Mohad Gasmi has been in preventive detention since 14 June 2020, on the charge of “praising terrorism”. On 5 January 2021, his case was transferred to the Criminal Court of Adrar. The human rights defender is currently being detained in Adrar prison.
The rise in concerted attacks and intimidation against human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors in Algeria is occurring against a backdrop of shrinking civic space, as indicated by a number of recent legislative developments. On 3 March 2021, the Algerian Minister of Justice presented to the government a preliminary draft law modifying the Algerian nationality code. According to governmental press agency (APS), the text provides for the establishment of a procedure for the revocation of nationality of any Algerian residing outside of the country who is deemed to have committed acts deliberately causing prejudice to the interests of the State or undermining national unity. The revocation could also apply to anyone who is deemed to have established or joined a terrorist organisation, anyone who finances or defends such an organisation, as well as any person who collaborates with an “enemy State”. The dissolution of the lower house of parliament on 18 February 2021, for early elections, makes it possible for the President to pass the law unilaterally through an ordinance, without publishing the provisions of the draft law beforehand. Human rights defenders and international human rights organisations fear that, based on previous practice, the draft law, if passed, would be used to target Algerian human rights defenders living outside of the country for their engagement with UN human rights mechanisms and or in reprisal for their support of the Hirak.
The proposed draft law follows the concerning amendments to the Penal Code, passed on 28 April 2020. The vaguely worded amendments are widely seen by human rights defenders and civil society activists as detrimental to the enjoyment of the freedom of expression and association in the country. The amendments criminalise the “spreading of false news” with a possible sentence ranging from one to three years’ imprisonment, and criminalise the receipt of foreign funding or donations, if such funds are subsequently used “to perform or incite acts likely to undermine State security, the stability and normal functioning of institutions, national unity, territorial integrity, the fundamental interests of Algeria, security and public order”, with a possible imprisonment sentence of up to 10 years.
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned by the criminalisation, inhumane treatment of and violence against human rights defenders Hassan Bouras, Mohad Gasmi, Kaddour Chouicha, and woman human rights defenders Jamila Loulik and Dalila Touat. The organisation believes that the targeting of these human rights defenders is solely motivated by their peaceful and legitimate human rights work, and is part of a broader crackdown on human rights defenders in Algeria, in reprisal for their efforts to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country. Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in Algeria to quash the convictions of Hassan Bouras, Kaddour Chouicha, Jamila Loulik and Dalida Touat and cease targeting all human rights defenders in Algeria and guarantee their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Front Line Defenders calls on the Algerian authorities not to proceed with the draft bill relating to the nationality code as human rights defenders fear that, if passed, it may enable the deprivation of nationality of Algerian human rights defenders abroad for their engagement with the UN mechanisms and their participation in civil society in the country. Front Line Defenders recommends that the Penal Code be reviewed in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (notably Articles 75; 79; 95bis; 98; 100; 144; 144bis; 144bis 2; 146 and 196bis); as its current provisions are frequently used to arbitrarily prosecute human right defenders, journalists and peaceful protesters.