Beirut — Trial Postponed Over His Poor Health, But He Remains in Detention
Algerian Authorities have brought charges against an activist for his peaceful support for the pro-reform Hirak protest movement and for boycotting the December 2019 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch said today.
The activist, Abdellah Benaoum, who lives in the western city of Relizane, is among some 45 Algerians currently detained and facing charges for their role in the protest movement, whose massive rallies have been suspended since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Benaoum has been detained since December. His trial opened in July, then adjourned due to his poor health, but the judge on September 2 again rejected a petition for his pretrial release. He suffers from a heart ailment that requires surgery, his lawyer said.
"Abdellah Benaoum may be less well known than the Hirak's prominent figures in the capital," said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "But his imprisonment epitomizes the authorities' determination to crush a nationwide, peaceful movement for democratic reform."
Benaoum's case file contains mainly printouts of Facebook posts from September to December 2019, in which he denounced those in power and urged a boycott of the planned elections, his lawyer, Abdarrahmane Laskar, told Human Rights Watch.
The authorities arrested Benaoum on December 9, three days before the presidential election, which the protesters had said should be postponed pending democratic reforms. The police searched his home and seized and went through his laptop and phone.
The Relizane police unit for combatting "information crimes" accused him of "inciting disobedience and a boycott of the presidential election," says a report in the case file. The file also refers to videos of Benaoum giving "inciting political speeches" and states that his Facebook posts include such slogans as "No to attacking the people's choice," "No to army-led elections," and "The constitution preferred by the army imposes its will over the will of the people."
The case file also cites text conversations with Benaoum from another activist from Relizane, Khaldi Ali, also known as Khaldi Yacine, who was arrested the same day and is in jail facing similar charges. Ali is 38.
Benaoum, who turns 55 on September 9, is charged with five crimes, all of them defined in the penal code in such sweeping terms that they can be used to punish peaceful expression and activities: Facebook posts that "seek to demoralize the army," (article 75); "undermining national unity" (article 79); inciting an unauthorized "unarmed gathering" (article 97 and 100); defaming a state institution (article 146); and casting discredit on decisions of the judiciary (article 147). The charges all carry prison terms, some of up to 10 years.
Prosecutors have brought similar charges against other Hirak activists. Charges that criminalize criticism of government institutions violate the right to freedom of expression.
The Hirak is a grassroots protest movement that began holding weekly street protests in various Algerian cities in February 2019 to oppose President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to run for a fifth five-year term. Bouteflika resigned in April, but the protest continued, with the movement demanding a consultative process to reform the political system before presidential elections. The authorities resisted the Hirak's demands and held nationwide elections on December 12, won by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a prime minister under Bouteflika, with a historically low turnout.
President Tebboune initially declared that he is open to a dialogue with the Hirak movement and promised that the government would "consolidate democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights."
Despite Benaoum's poor health, the judge handling the case has refused to release him, citing the serious nature of the charges. When the trial opened on July 16 in a Relizane court, the judge agreed to Benaoum's request for a medical examination, which found that he was not fit to stand trial, Laskar said. The judge agreed to postpone the trial but not to release Benaoum in the meantime, a decision that the judge reaffirmed on September 2.
Under international human rights law, detention before trial should be the exception, not the rule. The state authorities should have to show the necessity of detention before trial in each individual case, with the burden on them to prove this increasing the longer the detention before trial continues.
Bennaoum has been transferred among prisons in Relizane and Oran since his arrest and is currently in an Oran prison.
Bennaoum had been free for only six months before his arrest in December. He had been serving a two-year sentence on political charges related to his peaceful expression when he was freed in June 2019, 10 months early, after he went on a hunger strike. In that earlier case, a court convicted him of "using or instrumentalizing the wounds of the National Tragedy [the 1990s political violence in Algeria] with the aim of undermining of the Algerian Popular Democratic Republic, to weaken the state, dishonor its agents who served it with dignity, or tarnish the image of Algeria internationally (article 46 of Law on Peace and National Reconciliation of 2006).
"Benaoum's imprisonment is almost exactly as long as Tebboune's presidency," Goldstein said. "It stands as a grim refutation of his pledges of reform."