Algeria: Intensifying crackdown on civil society and journalists amidst COVID-19 pandemic and before referendum a danger to free speech and public health

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by Tarek

In reaction to the worsening human rights situation in Algeria, 31 local, regional and international civil society organizations, in the letter below, called on UN member states, the Office of the to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Special Procedures, and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to urgently respond to the intensified crackdown on Algerian civil society ahead of the UN 45th Human Rights Council (HRC) session.

While the UN has shared guidance for governments in the context of the pandemic, including freeing prisoners to reduce the risks of the virus spreading in detention facilities, Algeria has instead accelerated the detention of peaceful activists and journalists.

On 15 September 2020, Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni, correspondent for TV5Monde and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Director of the Casbah Tribune, was sentenced on appeal to two years in prison for “undermining national unity” and “inciting to an unarmed gathering”, based on his coverage of the Hirak protest movement.

The arbitrary sentencing of the journalist is not an isolated act. This case is representative of the alarming, intensifying crackdown on civil society and journalists in Algeria.

Only a week after his last release, on 8 September, activist Brahim Laalami was violently and arbitrarily arrested near his home by individuals in plain clothes. The pre-trial detention of Walid Kechida, creator of a satirical social media page, was renewed on 27 August for another four months. He was arrested in April for “contempt and offense to the President” and “attack on the divine entity.” Reporter Abdelkrim Zeghileche was also sentenced to two years in prison on 24 August. Furthermore, the health of activist Abdullah Benaoum, in detention since participating in a peaceful demonstration in December 2019, is in very critical condition as the authorities continue to deny him pretrial release.

As of 20 September, and according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), there are at least 61 detainees of opinion, up from 44 on 25 August, a number of them in pre-trial detention.

Within less than a month – between 30 March and 16 April 2020 – three communications were sent to the Algerian government by multiple special procedures in relation to arbitrary and violent arrests, unfair trials, and reprisals against human rights defenders and peaceful activists. Since then, the Kingdom of Belgium, UN Special Procedures, and the Chairs of two European Parliamentary bodies[1]havecome out to condemn judicial harassment against Algerian journalists, notably the sentencing of journalist Khaled Drareni, and to call on authorities to guarantee the right to freedom of expression. In their joint statement, Special Procedures further called on Algeria to “halt the arrest and detention of political activists, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders, as well as any person who expresses dissent or criticism of the government”.

Despite the Algerian authorities’ claims that the national judiciary is independent, the relentless and arbitrary prosecution and detention of civil society activists and journalists remains an urgent concern. Algerian authorities have been taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to further criminalize free expression and assembly. This is especially worrying ahead of a referendum on a constitutional revision[2] – the drafting of which was criticized for its lack of transparency and inclusivity. We therefore reiterate our call for urgent action from the international community to protect Algerian citizens striving to safeguard their democratic transition.


[1] Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Marie Arena, Chair of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee (DROI) and MEP Andrea Cozzolino, Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Maghreb countries (DMAG).

[2]Set for November 1st, 2020.

 

 Subject: 31 human rights groups call for urgent response to the Algerian government’s intensifying crackdown on civil society and journalists amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

We, the undersigned regional and international non-governmental organisations, write to draw your attention to the alarming and the intensified crackdown on Algerian civil society, targeting peaceful activists and journalists, including with arbitrary detention. We urge you to address these worrying developments, and to:

  • Strongly condemn the arbitrary and unlawful arrest, detention and judicial harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, civil society and other peaceful activists solely for expressing their views, for protesting peacefully and/or calling for democratic change;
  • Call on the Algerian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release these individuals, arbitrarily detained;
  • Call on authorities to cease all judicial harassment and intimidation against them; and
  • Call on Algeria to ensure and guarantee the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as included in the Algerian Constitution, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Algeria.

Illustrative of this crackdown, in August, two journalists – Abdelkrim Zeghileche and Khaled Drareni – were sentenced respectively to two and three years in prison. Drareni’s appeal is set for 8 September. Human rights defender and activist Abdullah Benaoum has remained in pre-trial detention since December 2019, despite a very critical health condition. Opposition figure Amira Bouraoui was sentenced to a year in prison on 21 June and is awaiting her appeal on 24 September. On19 June 2020, about 500 peaceful protesters were subjected to mass arbitrary detentions.

The Algerian authorities’ relentless prosecution and harassment of civil society and journalists undermines human rights as the country undertakes its democratic transition process, ahead of a constitutional referendum to be held on November 1st, endangers the health of individuals detained given the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in the midst of an outbreak of the virus in Algerian prisons. This risk is illustrated by the recent death of two detainees and the infection of at least eight others.

In the 44th HRC session, civil society organisations urged the Council to increase its scrutiny of the situation in Algeria, knowing that within less than a month – between 30 March and 16 April 2020 – three communications were sent to the Algerian government by multiple special procedures in relation to arbitrary and violent arrests, unfair trials and reprisals against human rights defenders and peaceful activists. Despite these communications, and while President Tebboune announced his support for an open dialogue with the Hirak and his desire to break with previous repressive practices following controversial elections in December 2019, the reality on the ground shows that the level of repression has increased drastically.

We therefore call on you to raise these pressing and worrying developments in order to protect Algerian civil society as it strives to protect its democratic transition, and its freedom of assembly and expression.

We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

  • Adil Soz
  • Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC)
  • Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
  • Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
  • Amnesty International
  • Article 19
  • Bytes for All (B4A)
  • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  • Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM)
  • Cartoonist’s Rights Network International (CRNI)
  • Civicus
  • Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
  • Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia
  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
  • Globe International Center
  • Initiative for Freedom of Expression (IFoX) – Turkey
  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  • International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
  • International Press Centre (IPC)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  • Maharat Foundation
  • Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
  • Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)
  • Media, Entertainment &Artis Alliance (MEAA)
  • Metamorphosis
  • Pacific Islands News Association (PINA)
  • Reporters without Borders (RSF)
  • South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO)
  • World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)

Context

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, and the suspension of the peaceful protest movement called the Hirak, Algerian authorities have accelerated arbitrary prosecutions and harassment of journalists, peaceful activists, rights defenders, and citizens expressing dissenting opinions. Between March and June 2020, local rights groups estimate that at least 200 people were subjected to arbitrary arrests for expressing their opinion or for their alleged support to the Hirak, while more than 1,400 were prosecuted in relation to the protests since the start of the Hirak movement in February 2019. As of 25 August, and according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), at least 44 people are behind bars after being arbitrarily detained for expressing their opinion, and a number of them are in pre-trial detention. On 19 June 2020, about 500 peaceful protesters were subjected to mass arbitrary detentions.

Among those recently sentenced or prosecuted:

  • Political activist Samir Ben Larbi and national coordinator of the families of the disappeared Slimane Hamitouche (subject of a joint communication from UN Special Procedures), were sentenced on 10 August to two years in prison over online publications and their participation in peaceful protests.
  • On 21 June, Amira Bouraoui, activist and opposition figure, was sentenced to a year in prison after criticizing President Tebboune online. She is awaiting her appeal, scheduled to take place on 24 September 2020.
  • The pre-trial detention of Walid Kechida, creator of a satirical Facebook page, arrested in April for “contempt and offense to the President” and “attack on the divine entity”, was renewed on 27 August 2020 for another 4 months.
  • Activist Abdullah Benaoum’s health is in critical condition. He has remained in pre-trial detention since his participation in a peaceful demonstration in December 2019, although he suffers from a heart condition requiring an urgent surgical intervention. His petition for a pretrial release was rejected again on 2 September.

Peaceful activists and journalists are sentenced on vague charges such as “weakening the morale of the army”, “undermining national unity” or “offending the President”, all stemming from exercising their right to free speech or peaceful assembly. The National Union of Magistrates (SNM) has recently denounced the abusive recourse to pre-trial detention.

In addition, authorities have continued to clamp down on freedom of information by blocking news websites and multiplying the prosecution of journalists. In April 2020, the Parliament hurriedly passed vaguely worded amendments to the Penal Code allowing for people exercising free speech to be charged with “spreading false news”, harming “national unity” and “public order”, punishable by one to three years in prison. At least six online news websites covering the COVID-19 pandemic and the Hirak protests were made unavailable on Algerian networks in April and May. Two of them were blocked four days after the editor-in-chief of both websites published an op-ed criticizing President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s first 100 days in office. Minister of Communication Amar Belhimer admitted that the authorities, without prior notification, had blocked them pending “further legal proceedings” against the director for “defamation and insult” against President Tebboune.

Among the journalists targeted:

  • Reporter Abdelkrim Zeghileche was sentenced to two years in prison on 24 August 2020 after he called for the creation of a new political party and criticized President Tebboune. He was accused of “endangering national unity” and “insulting the head of state”;
  • Journalist Khaled Drareni, correspondent for TV5Monde and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Director of the Casbah Tribune, was sentenced to three years in prison over his reporting on the Hirak protest movement on 10 August 2020;
  • On 28 July 2020, Algerian authorities detained Moncef Aït Kaci, a former France 24 correspondent, Ramdane Rahmouni, a freelance producer and camera operator, and Mustapha Bendjama, a local journalist and advocate for the freedom of the press. They were released temporarily pending investigation, and Bendjama continues to face inappropriate criminal charges.
  • After a one-day trial, in April 2020, Algerian authorities also charged three journalists with “attack on national unity” over their reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.

Furthermore, members of the judiciary who demand respect for judicial independence have been sanctioned professionally. On February 10, the Justice Ministry ordered the arbitrary transfer of prosecutor Mohamed Belhadi 600 kilometers south of Algiers, after Belhadi requested the acquittal of 16 protesters. The spokesperson for the Algerian Magistrates Association, Saad Eddine Merzouk and other judges who called for the protection of judiciary independence, were summoned in an extraordinary session before the Superior Judicial Council on 1 June 2020. Back in November 2019, police had forcefully dislodged a peaceful gathering of magistrates on strike, in a courthouse in Oran, over the reshuffling of judicial positions.

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