Algeria: A Pebble in the Shoe - the Trials of Mohad Gasmi and the Invisible Discrimination of Southern Algeria

24 November 2023

It is not coincidental that Gasmi's troubles began when he challenged the regime on its exploitation of mineral resources in the South.

Since June 2020, Mohad Gasmi, an activist from Adrar in the south of Algeria, has been sitting in a prison cell. On 5 July, Algeria's independence day, he initiated a new hunger strike : "We suffer arbitrariness and oppression in the name of the law and under the national flag, which symbolises independence but we continue to be the objects of colonial practices," he said in a statement released on Facebook.

The conditions of his incarceration worsened afterwards. On July 27, he was transferred to the prison of Meniaa, hundreds of kilometres away from his hometown of Adrar without being able to inform his family. They would look for him for two weeks before locating his detention facility.

This October, in a trial under a new jurisdiction held inAdrar, he received a three-year sentence including two in detention, a confirmation of the previous sentence. Because he's been sentenced in another case, he will remain in prison. His convictions demonstrate the continuing repression of critical voices, which is likely to increase as the regime targets the oposition in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections.

To the Algerian government, Gasmi is a pebble in the shoe. He embodies a possible juncture of social and political movements in the southern part of the country, the preserve of Algerian officials due to its considerable natural resources. In his early years as an activist, he was an ardent defender of the rights of the unemployed and became a leading figure of the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC). But his journey led him to another struggle. In 2015, he took part in the movement against shale gas, which was prompted by drilling operations - Algeria holds the third largest recoverable shale gas reserves - and echoed across the country. The pressure on Algerian authorities increased when activists created a bridge between both movements, thus linking socioeconomic and environmental grievances

In 2019, when the Hirak took to the streets to oppose Abdelaziz Bouteflika's fifth presidential mandate and call for regime change, Gasmi was one of its major figures in Adrar. "He understood that these issues were linked, that there was an over-exploitation of [mineral] riches at the expense of the unemployed, and that this was linked to the nature of the Algerian political system. He joined the Hirak to change the political system in order to [secure] all human rights, including environmental rights," said lawyer and human rights activist, Salah Dabouz.

Dabouz, the lawyer of Kamaleddine Fekhar, an activist from Ghardaia who died in detention while on hunger strike in May 2019, believes Gasmi has been subjected to the "relentlessness" of the state. He pointed to harsher conditions of detention in the south, particularly in Ghardaia and Adrar. Like the prosecutions, he said, these are at least partly motivated by ethnic and religious discrimination against the convicts that is prejudiced even against the colour of their skin: "It's a fact that everyone is trying to hide. [The detainees] are not all held in prison under the same conditions," he observeds.

On 8 June 2020, after the Hirak protests ceased due to the pandemic, Gasmi was suddenly apprehended. His arrest occurred after he had been interrogated by Interpol. His home was subsequently searched and his phone and computer were confiscated. He was in custody for six days, charged with "glorification of terrorism" before being sent to pretrial detention for 16 months. The prosecution was based on a publication dating back to 2018 in which he blamed the state and its marginalisation policy for the radicalisation of Abdesslem Tarmoune, a militant of the Movement of the Sons of the Sahara for Justice (MSJ), killed in January 2018 in Libya.

On 17 October 2021, he was sentenced to five years in prison based on article 87 bis of the penal code, an amendment passed in June 2021, which served as the justification for the incarceration of numerous activists involved in the Hirak - a sentence reduced to three years on appeal. In a separate case, Gasmi was charged with "revealing confidential information without the intention of treason or espionage" and offending the President of the Republic and public institutions. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Before his new trial last month, one of his lawyers, Said Zahi, declared on his Facebook page that the wali of Adrar had a hand in Gasmi's incarceration, confirming that it was very likely politically motivated. Be that as it may, his arrest was a clear message to other dissidents in the southern part of the country. It took place when public reaction would be minimal, as the regime was trying to get rid of the Hirak by detaining critics and influential figures who could lead new protests. The regime's widespread repression has targeted most political and social actors across the country. It is an effort not only to prevent the Hirak from returning to the streets, but also to avoid the eruption of socio-economically motivated demonstrations.

The southern part of Algeria has experienced several movements over the past few years. Although it sits on considerable natural resources, it suffers from high unemployment and poor infrastructure. In 2013, the youth mobilized for fairer access to jobs and wealth distribution in Ouargla and Laghouat. In January 2015, in Ain Salah, the local inhabitants, including women, held demonstrations and set up a permanent sit-in against fracking, which lasted several weeks. Several protesters and prominent activists, including members of the CNDDC, underwent intense pressure and repression.

During the pandemic, a new wave of arrests took place. Since 2020, the number of jailed activists has amounted to at least eleven in the province of Adrar. In the majority of cases, they were charged with anti-government criticism online. Several have been repeatedly prosecuted or jailed since, among them Hassan Laroui and Abdelatif Bensalah. The repression targeted other renowned activists in the south. Ameur Guerrache, a leader of the Mekhadma movement in Ouargla, was jailed in July 2020 and sentenced on appeal to three years, including 18 months in detention for, among other charges, inciting terrorism and publications harming national unity.

"These communities have legitimate concerns over their water supply today, just like they did in 2015. [Along with] its negotiations over new fracking projects, the Algerian government is cracking down on activists to ensure they don't derail projects again," explains Andrew Ferrand, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of The Algerian Dream, a book about the origins of the Hirak uprising.

"This is meant to reassure international investors that they won't encounter local opposition, but in fact it's a reminder of the social cost that these projects generate. The Hirak showed that the government isn't responsive to Algerians' real desires, and the new carrots and sticks Tebboune's administration has introduced since 2019 haven't fundamentally changed that."

"What authorities fear is a revival of such movements even more so after the Hirak has shown the possibility of organised, united popular protests nationwide". In January 2021, despite the restrictions due to the pandemic, people took to the streets in Laghouat and Ouargla against the lack of jobs agitating for the dismissal of local officials. A month later, rioters demonstrated their anger in Ouargla after the sentencing of Ameur Guerrache. However, since the end of the Hirak demonstrations in June 2021, there have barely been any public political demonstrations. There were a few outbursts, like the riots in Ouargla in July 2021, but they melted away as swiftly as they erupted.

In the years leading to the Hirak, the southern social movements greatly increased political awareness and paved the way to nationwide demonstrations. Yet the Hirak's failure to improve the political situation and more concretely, people's daily lives, as well as the ongoing repression, have driven people back to their homes. With the absence of street opposition, the regime is pursuing its own agenda and imposing unpopular projects such as the mine exploitation of Amizour and Tala Hamza in July 2023. If the balance of power doesn't shift, the same could happen in Ain Salah.

Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance journalist focusing on protest movements and human rights issues in Morocco and Algeria.

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