Tunis — Algerian authorities are deploying large numbers of police and arresting protesters to prevent demonstrations in the capital in advance of the April 17, 2014 presidential elections.
Officials recently targeted a movement opposed to a fourth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Algerian authorities should rescind the 2001 decree banning all demonstrations in Algiers, the capital. The authorities should create conditions for unfettered debate and competitive elections, including the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.
"The open-ended, blanket ban on demonstrations in the capital has been in effect almost as long as Bouteflika has been president," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Is it any surprise that these latest victims of the crackdown on protest are those who peacefully oppose his election to a fourth five-year term?"
Three times during the first week of March, security forces in the capital forcibly dispersed supporters of "the Barakat (Enough) movement," as they expressed their opposition to a fourth mandate for Bouteflika, who has been president since 1999. On March 1, 4, and 6, security forces tried to block access to the protest site. Security forces confronted protesters who managed to reach the site and started to wave banners and chant slogans.
On March 6, several Barakat protesters reached the Place Audin downtown, in front of the campus of Algiers University, only to find a heavy police presence.
When some managed to unfurl banners and begin anti-Bouteflika candidacy chants, the police forced dozens of them into police vans and drove them to various police stations in the capital, holding them for up to four hours, then releasing them, five of the protesters told Human Rights Watch.
Since banning demonstrations in Algiers, authorities have repeatedly prevented or reined in rallies and marches whose objective they apparently considered controversial.
Hacene Ferhati, an activist of the association SOS Disparu(e)s, an advocacy group of families of people who were forcibly disappeared during the civil conflict of the 1990s, described what happened on March 6:
The sit-in was to start at 11 a.m. When I arrived, I saw that the Place Audin was full of policemen. I took out the photo of my brother (who disappeared in 1997) and started waving it, chanting, "Barakat, Barakat [Enough, Enough]!"
After two minutes, a policeman in uniform grabbed the photo and tore it [into] pieces. Then three other policemen came and escorted me into a police van. Several protesters were already inside the van, and the police kept bringing more. At the end we were about 12.
They took us to the Rue Cavaignac police station, in Algiers, where we stayed 30 minutes. Then they brought us to other police stations that were full, until we ended up at the Belfort police station in Harrache [a suburb east of Algiers]. They released us after three hours.
Mehdi Bsikri, a journalist for Al Watan newspaper, said that he and other founders of the Barakat Movement selected that name for their movement on March 1, after police forcibly dispersed their first two attempts at staging public protests in February.
"For the March 6 demonstration, we publicized the event on Facebook, Twitter, and in some newspapers," Bsikri said. "When I got to the Place Audin, I brandished my banner with slogans against Bouteflika's fourth mandate and started screaming 'Tahia al Jazaer!' (Long Live Algeria!) Right away, about six uniformed policemen surrounded me and pulled me to the police van, where I joined several other arrested protesters, including Hacene Ferhati."
Mustapha Benfodil, one of the founding members and spokesperson for the Barakat Movement, told Human Rights Watch:
As I walked down the avenue Dédouche Mourad, I saw a heavy police presence all along the way. I arrived at Place Audin around 11 a.m. and walked toward the campus of Algiers University, where I witnessed several policemen arresting Mehdi Bsikri.
I phoned another activist, Amira Bouraoui, who informed me that she had been arrested some minutes before. I pulled out a picture of my daughter which, for me, symbolizes the future and started chanting Qasaman, our national anthem. Police in uniform ran toward me, pulled down the picture of my daughter, then surrounded me and pushed me toward a police van.
I was alone inside the van for few minutes. Then police brought another guy who was fighting the police back and was trying to free himself from their grip. One policeman in plain clothes started punching him. When I asked him to stop, he punched me in the face.
The police brought four other protesters into the van and then drove us to the Al-Biar police station. They confiscated our identity cards and our cellular phones. They took us to the basement of the building, where a police officer interrogated us one by one. We stayed there around three hours. The police brought two more groups of three protesters each to our cell. They held us there until they freed us at 3:50 p.m.
Authorities imposed the ban on demonstrations in Algiers on June 18, 2001, four days after a huge march in Algiers focusing on the rights on the Amazigh, or Berber, ethnic group, that drew participants from all over the Amazigh-majority Kabylia region and that resulted in some looting of shops and clashes involving the police, demonstrators, and local youths. Authorities did not rescind the ban when they lifted the 19-year-old state of emergency in 2011.
The ban supersedes Algeria's 1991 Law Governing Public Meetings and Demonstrations, which itself restricts the right to demonstrate peacefully. Under the law a group planning a public gathering must seek authorization from the authorities eight days in advance.
The wali (provincial governor) must announce his approval or prohibition of the public assembly at least five days before it is scheduled to take place. He or his subordinates may prohibit any gathering by informing its organizers that it constitutes "a real risk of disturbing the public order" or if "it seems clear that the real objective of the meeting constitutes a danger to maintaining the public order."
These restrictions go beyond what international human rights law permits.
Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Therefore, international law allows only narrow restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly, which should be narrowly defined, and any restrictions need to be proportionate, only permissible to the extent they are strictly necessary.
Terms such as "national security" and "public safety" refer to situations involving an immediate and violent threat to the nation or to its territorial integrity or political independence. A total and indefinite prohibition on peaceful assembly, especially in the capital city, is a violation of the international covenant.