Beirut — The Algerian authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute activists from the pro-democracy movement "Hirak" despite the president's promise to initiate a dialogue with the group, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the presidential election on December 12, 2019, Algerian authorities have detained dozens of activists who participated in peaceful protests, including as recently as January 17, 2020. Many remain in detention, facing charges based on their participation in peaceful protest or criticism of the authorities after the authorities provisionally released more than 70 activists in January.
"Instead of freeing everyone detained for peaceful protest, the authorities have continued arresting and detaining people for their peaceful activism," said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa executive director at Human Rights Watch. "Offers of dialogue lose credibility when you are locking people up simply for going onto the streets to disagree with you."
At least one prominent journalist was arrested and threatened with prosecution. The authorities charged a novelist with "insulting the president of the Republic" and "harming state security" over his Facebook posts mocking President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Several prominent leaders of Hirak remain in detention.
The Hirak movement began in February 2019 as millions of Algerians took to the streets to demand that then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down, opposing his candidacy for a fifth term. After his resignation in April, the movement continued its pressure through large demonstrations in several cities calling for a more pluralistic and inclusive system of governance and a boycott of any presidential election that was not preceded by inclusive negotiations over the form it would take.
The authorities largely tolerated the protests at first, but beginning in June, started more aggressively arresting groups of protesters. They intensified the crackdown starting in September by arresting more than 13 leaders of the protest movement. The authorities held the presidential election without meeting the protesters' conditions.
Following his election, Tebboune, who served as prime minister under former President Bouteflika, declared that he is open to a dialogue with the Hirak movement and announced that the government would "consolidate democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights."
The authorities arrested 20 activists in Algiers on January 17, 2020 during the 48th consecutive Friday of mass protest, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, created on August 26, 2019 by activists and lawyers to defend arrested protesters. Two of the activists arrested, Hakim Addad and Samir Larabi, who are members of the Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ), a nongovernmental organization heavily involved in Hirak, were released without charge the same day.
The remaining 18 spent two nights in police custody. On January 19, 2020, the public prosecutor of the Sidi M'hamed First Instance Court in Algiers prosecuted 16 of them under the charge of "illegal gathering." Two others, Kamel Nemmiche and Laouchedi Mokrane, both RAJ members, were prosecuted for "harming national unity," under article 79 of the penal code. All 18 had a court session that same day at the court during which the judge acquitted the 16 prosecuted for an illegal gathering and provisionally released Nemmiche and Mokrane pending their trial, scheduled for February 9.
On January 9, military officers arrested Khaled Drareni, correspondent for French TV5 Monde, at his home in Algiers and interrogated him for several hours about his opinions and social media posts. They threatened him with prosecution but released him without charge the same day.
Police in Tipaza, a city 70 kilometers from Algiers, interrogated Anouar Rahmani, a novelist, over his satirical Facebook posts, and charged him on January 13 with "insulting the president of the Republic" and "harming state security." He is free pending further investigation.
Algerian courts in several cities provisionally released more than 70 activists on January 2. However, courts in various cities refused the request for provisional release filed by several prominent leaders, including Abdelwahab Farsaoui, the RAJ president, and Karim Tabbou, an opposition figure. The National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees estimates that of the 150 people who were held in pretrial detention or tried for their participation in the protest movement between June and December 2019, approximately 80 remain in prison.
The list of those released on January 2 by separate courts across the country includes prominent Hirak activists such as Hakim Addad, founder of RAJ; Lakhdar Bouregga, a veteran of the Algerian independence war; Mohamed Tadjadit, known as "the Hirak's poet;" and Halim Feddal, secretary general of the National Association against Corruption. Other activists released later in January include Kaddour Chouicha, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights.
New Arrests and Prosecutions
Kammel Nemmiche, a member of the RAJ executive bureau, told Human Rights Watch that two policemen in civilian clothes arrested him on January 17 at around 11 a.m. in the plaza in front of the Central Post Office, a central site for protests in Algiers. They took him to the "Alger Centre" police station, where officers interrogated him about his activism in the Hirak movement and his political opinions. He spent two nights there, with 17 other protesters arrested later in the day, he said.
On January 19, the public prosecutor of the Sidi M'hamed Court charged him with "harming national unity" under article 79 of the penal code. He said he had a court session that day with the 17 others. The judge pronounced the acquittal of 16 activists prosecuted for an "illegal gathering." The same judge upheld the charges against him and Laouchedi Mokrane, another RAJ member, and provisionally released them pending their trial, scheduled for February 9.
Khaled Drareni said that military officers came to his house on January 9 at 3 p.m. and took him to the military barracks in Algiers. There, he said, officers of the military judicial police interrogated him for several hours. He said they criticized him for his publications on social media and his criticism of the Algerian authorities in the media.
He said they told him that his publications were "subversive, misleading and biased" and that his arrest, which he said was his fourth since September, was the last warning before they send his case to the judiciary. They released him at 11 p.m., without notifying him of any charges or further investigations.
Anouar Rahmani, a writer who was prosecuted in 2017 for blasphemy over a novel he wrote, said that he received a police summons on January 8 at his house. When he went to the Tipaza police station on January 13, police officers interrogated him about his social media posts supporting Hirak and denouncing what he considered was the military's grip on power.
They asked him questions about a photo he published on Facebook of two men kissing, on which he commented that they were Tebboune, then a presidential candidate, and Gaid Salah, late minister of defense and strongman following Bouteflika's resignation, who died in December. He said the police also questioned him about his call for a boycott of the presidential election. He signed a police report that said he is being investigated under the charges of "insulting the president of the Republic" and "harming state security." The police released him the same day. The 2017 case over his novel is pending.
The Algerian official news agency, Algérie Press Service, published a breakdown of the activists released on January 2. It said that 51 were released by courts in Algiers, 6 from Chlef, 4 from Oued Souf, 3 from Constantine, 2 from Tlemcen, 2 from Tipaza, 2 from Taref, 2 from Oran, and 1 from Boumerdes. The authorities did not explain the flurry of releases.
One of the activists' lawyers, Abdelghani Badi, who is a member of the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees and closely followed the court cases, said that many of those freed on January 2 had remained in pretrial detention while the courts failed to take up their cases, and rejected their petitions for provisional release.
The Sidi M'hamed First Instance Court in Algiers ordered the release on January 2 of Hakim Addad, founder of RAJ, and nine other members of the organization from the El Harrach Prison, following a brief hearing. They were arrested separately in September and October and charged with calling for an illegal gathering and harming the integrity of the national territory under articles 97 and 76 of the penal code respectively. Their lawyer, Abdelghani Badi, said that their trial date has not been set yet.
Lakhdar Bouregga, a veteran of Algeria's independence war, arrested on June 30 and prosecuted for "weakening the morale of the army," was provisionally released from El Harrach Prison in Algiers on January 2 by the First Instance Court of Bir Mourad Rais in Algiers, following a court hearing, said his lawyer, Noureddine Ahmine. The trial is scheduled for March 12.
Mohamed Tadjadit, nicknamed the "poet" of the Hirak for his slam poems critical of the authorities, was arrested on November 11 in Algiers while he gathered with others before Sidi M'hamed Court to demand the release of Hirak detainees, said the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees. Tadjadit was accused of "undermining the national unity" under article 96 of the penal code and sentenced by the Sidi M'hamed Court to 18 months in prison on December 19. He was released on January 2 pending his appeal trial, which was initially set for January 16, but has been postponed.
Halim Feddal, secretary general of the National Association against Corruption, which exposes and combats corruption in Algeria, was arrested on November 17 as he participated in a demonstration in front of the Chlef First Instance Court to protest the detention of Hirak protesters. A prosecutor of the court charged him with "compromising the integrity of the national territory" and "distributing publications harmful to the national interest," under penal code articles 79 and 96, and an investigative judge at the same court ordered his pretrial detention in the Chlef Prison. He was released on January 2 after a brief court hearing the same day. His trial is scheduled for February 26.
On January 7, the Oran Appeals Court provisionally released Kaddour Chouicha, president of the Oran section of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, whom a first instance court sentenced on December 10 to one year in prison on charges of "participation in a gathering of an unarmed nature" and "distributing documents harmful to the national interest." His lawyer, Ferid Khemisti, said that the appeal trial is set for January 28.
Activists and Leaders Still in Pretrial Detention
Other activists are still in pretrial detention in various prisons across the country. Their lawyers filed several requests for provisional release, so far in vain. The list includes prominent leaders detained at El Harrach Prison:
Abdelwahab Fersaoui, president of RAJ, arrested on October 10 in Algiers and prosecuted for "compromising the integrity of the national territory," and "hampering the transport of military material." His lawyer, Sofiane Ikken, said that he had filed a request for Fersaoui's provisional release on December 17, but the investigative judge of the First Instance Court of Sidi M'hamed in Algiers rejected it, a decision upheld on appeal.
Karim Tabbou, national coordinator of the unrecognized Democratic and Socialist Union party (Union démocratique et sociale, UDS) and former general secretary of the prominent opposition Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) party, was arrested on September 26 at his home in Douera, in Algiers province. The prosecutor of the Sidi M'hamed Court in Algiers ordered his detention on charges of "recruiting mercenaries on behalf of foreign powers in Algeria" and distribution of flyers or other publications that could harm national interest under articles 76 and 96 of the penal code, respectively. His lawyer, Abdelghani Badi, said that he had requested Tabbou's provisional release several times, without success. Badi said that on January 8, the investigating judge sent a notification that he had finished the investigation phase and referred the case for trial. On January 20, the investigative judge renewed Tabbou's pretrial detention for four months. His trial date has not yet been set.
Fodil Boumala, a journalist and political activist, was arrested on September 18 at his home in Algiers. A prosecutor of the First Instance Court of Dar El Beida in Algiers province charged him with "compromising the integrity of the national territory" and "distribution of documents harmful to the national interest" under articles 79 and 96 of the penal code, respectively. His lawyer, Noureddine Ahmine, said that the investigative judge of the Dar El Beida Court has completed the investigation and referred the case to the criminal chamber of the same court. Boumala's trial is scheduled for February 9.
Samir Belarbi was arrested on September 16 in an Algiers cafe. He had expressed fierce opposition to the elections and called for the departure of "all symbols of the regime" during speeches at the Friday protests and on national TV. The prosecutor of the First Instance Court of Bir Mourad Rais in Algiers charged him with "compromising the integrity of the national territory" and "distribution of documents harmful to the national interest" under articles 79 and 96 of the penal code, respectively. Belarbi's trial is scheduled for January 27 in the Bir Mourad Rais Court, said his defense lawyer Abdelghani Badi.