Tunis — An appeals court on March 24, 2020 sentenced an Algerian opposition figure to one year in prison after an apparent unfair trial for his defiant but peaceful speech, Human Rights Watch said today. The opposition figure, Karim Tabbou, was accused of criticizing the army and supporting the Hirak movement that seeks democratic change.
The court in Algiers issued its verdict one day before Tabbou was to go free upon completing the six-month sentence that the first instance court had imposed on him. In an apparent effort to silence him and intimidate others, the authorities are prosecuting Tabbou on other speech-related charges in a trial set to begin April 6.
"While governments are freeing prisoners to reduce risks of COVID-19 spreading in prisons, Algeria continues to jail dissidents like Karim Tabbou for expressing political views," said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
On April 1, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune signed a decree pardoning 5,037 prisoners, apparently in an effort to address the pandemic. The decree apparently did not include jailed Hirak activists.
The Hirak began in February 2019 when Algerians protested en masse to demand that the then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika renounce plans to run for a fifth term. After forcing Bouteflika's resignation in April, the movement continued to stage massive demonstrations every Friday, calling for a more democratic system of government.
The movement opposed the presidential election that Tebboune, a former prime minister under Bouteflika, won on December 13, with a 40 percent participation rate, a record low for Algeria. Soon after, Tebboune declared that his government would "consolidate democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights."
The Hirak demonstrations continued weekly until the authorities banned all demonstrations over the pandemic, and the Hirak announced it would suspend its rallies.
According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, at least 173 people remain on trial for participating in Hirak protests or covering them. They include prominent journalists, like the Radio France International (RFI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) correspondent Khaled Drareni, who was arrested on March 29, and noted civil society activists like Abdelouhab Fersaoui, who has been in pretrial detention since October 10.
Security forces arrested Tabbou, the national coordinator of the unrecognized Democratic and Socialist Union party, at his home on September 12. An investigative judge in the Koléa Court in Tipaza Province ordered his detention on a charge of "undermining the morale of the army," punishable by up to 10 years in prison under article 75 of the penal code. The accusation stems from Tabbou's May 9 lecture in the city of Kherrata criticizing the army for exercising powers outside of its constitutional prerogatives, said his lawyer Abderrahman Salah.
The court released Tabbou on September 25, pending trial. But security forces rearrested him the following day, and a prosecutor later charged him, on the basis of articles 74 and 79 of the penal code, with "inciting to commit acts of violence with the intention of harming national defense" and "harming national unity by preparing and publishing videos on social media," each of which carries a sentence of up to 10 years.
Tabbou was first tried on March 11 for this second set of charges, before the Sidi M'hamed First Instance Court. He faces trial for the charge of undermining military morale on April 6.
During the March 11 trial, Tabbou confirmed the speeches attributed to him, but contended that they violated no law. The court, however, in its written judgment, cited a few of Tabbou's speeches in convicting him, including a video posted on Facebook on April 26, when the Hirak movement was organizing huge peaceful weekly protests. In it, Tabbou asked:
Hey Gaid [Ahmed Gaid Salah, the Army chief of staff who became Algeria's strongman following the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika], what right have you to close the roads in the face of Algerians, shut down the internet of Algerians, close public transportation of Algerians ... impose your will on Algerians?
In its written judgment, the court found that through such a statement, Tabbou meant to incite the public to confront security forces.
The court also cited Tabbou's May 9 lecture in Kherrata in which he referred to powerful military figures as part of "the gang," a term some use to refer to those believed to hold the real power in Algeria under Bouteflika: "Young army officers will ... free the [military] institution ... in a way that suits the Hirak.... Young competent officers will be able to free [Algeria] from the gang ... inside that institution." The court found that these remarks showed Tabbou's intention to "divide the military institution and incite to chaos within it ... at a time when the country is unstable."
The court found Tabbou guilty of "compromising the integrity of the national unity," but acquitted him of "inciting to commit acts of violence." The court sentenced him to a fine and 12 months in prison, 6 months of which were suspended.
Although Tabbou was due for release on March 25, on March 24, the Ruisseau Court of Appeals heard Tabbou's appeal, upheld his conviction, and returned him to prison after converting the suspended part of his lower court sentence to time behind bars.
The defense team protested, saying that judicial authorities had notified Tabbou of the trial date only on the morning of the hearing, and that they learned of it only by chance that day. Madjid Hachour, one of Tabbou's lawyers, told Human Rights Watch "Another lawyer, who happened to be in the Ruisseau court for other business, caught sight of Tabbou and called me and other members of his defense team around 11 in the morning to tell us that his appeals hearing had already begun." Some of Tabbou's lawyers rushed to the courthouse. They found Tabbou being escorted to a clinic.
They learned that he had collapsed after the judge rejected his plea to postpone the trial due to the absence of his lawyers, Hachour said. The lawyers asked the judge to postpone due to their client's condition and to allow them time to prepare. They also noted that the case file lacked a copy of the written judgment in the first instance case, as required by law, Hachour and another defense lawyer, Noureddine Ahmine, told Human Rights Watch.
When the judge refused to reschedule, Tabbou refused to answer the court's questions. His lawyers decided to boycott the hearing. The court announced its verdict later that day.
The Algiers public prosecutor stated that the trial had proceeded according to the law.
Tabbou should not have been tried in the first place for his speeches, Human Rights Watch said. International human rights law guarantees the right to peacefully criticize and challenge the legitimacy of a country's leaders and institutions, including the army. It permits states to punish speech only in narrowly defined circumstances, such as direct incitement to violence.
Algeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In its General Comment number 34 on that covenant, the United Nation's Human Rights Committee stated that:
in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high... . States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.
Moreover, Tabbou's appeals trial appeared to violate fundamental tenets of a fair trial, as set out, for example, in the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa. This includes the requirement that the defense be given reasonable time to prepare their arguments and that they have access in sufficient time before trial to all relevant files and documents to their case, including the lower court written judgment that they are appealing.
"At a time when the Hirak has suspended its peaceful protests due to the pandemic, the authorities have pounced to imprison one of its leaders after an expedited and unjust trial," Goldstein said.