A society behind bars: the effects of Algeria’s widespread crackdown on human rights

The Algerian authorities are leading a relentless crackdown on citizens for expressing any form of dissent. Be it participants in protest marches, journalists working for independent media, or people posting on social media, no-one in Algeria is safe from the claws of repression.

Since the “Hirak” weekly protest movement broke out in 2019, first opposing a fifth mandate of then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and then evolving into a wider response to the lack of political freedom in Algeria, hundreds of people have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. The authorities targeted people they considered leaders of the protest movement and those reporting on it, but after the weekly protests were banned due to Covid restrictions, the authorities expanded their crackdown. Young and old; urban and rural; activists and school children, no matter the gender, the Algerian authorities are going after anyone exercising their right to freedom of expression, assembly or association in a way deemed threatening to the government.

The authorities have used various means to broaden their repression, including making repeated arbitrary arrests; imposing heavy fines; pressuring dissidents’ family members for information on their whereabouts; and in at least one case, abducting a fleeing activist with refugee status and forcibly returning him back to Algeria to face trial on bogus charges. Authorities have also employed the tactic of pre-trial detention beyond the legal limit, have meted out lengthy prison sentences, and have subjected detainees to torture and other ill-treatment.

According to local watchdog groups, over 200 people remain detained in Algerian prisons for expressing dissent, often sentenced under problematic articles in the Penal Code such as “harming” the national security, “undermining national unity”, “offending” public officials, “incitement” to unarmed gathering, spreading fake news, and terrorism.

Amnesty International interviewed former detainees as well as the families and lawyers of those who remain behind bars. The individual stories highlighted here underscore the suffering people have endured at the hands of the Algerian authorities. In documenting these experiences, Amnesty International urges support in demanding the Algerian authorities grant the urgent and unconditional release of those arbitrarily detained, halt the harassment of opponents and perceived critics outside prison, and ultimately reform the legislation that enables serious violations of people’s rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

Freedom of Expression

Authorities have detained people just for peacefully expressing their opinions, including journalists and citizens penalised for social media posts. Over the past two years, the Algerian authorities have prosecuted, arrested, or detained at least 12 journalists and media workers.

Algerian authorities are engaged in an unrelenting assault on independent media and all critical voices, typically using bogus charges such as “spreading fake news” and “offending” public officials. This is in clear contrast to Algeria’s commitments under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights as well as Algeria’s constitution, which protects the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Ihsane El Kadi, 64, journalist and founder of media company “Interface Media,” is imprisoned in El Harrach prison in Algiers, after being convicted and sentenced on charges relating to his journalism in violation of his right to freedom of expression. On 12 October 2023, the Algerian Supreme Court rejected two appeals made by Ihsane El Kadi’s lawyers, effectively upholding his seven-year sentence, which includes five years in prison and two years on probation.

IhsanE El Kadi

El Kadi is well-known in Algeria for his independent journalism which was often critical of the Algerian authorities. In December 2022, security officials arbitrarily arrested Ihsane at his home and led him in handcuffs to his office, where they seized computers and other materials without a warrant. In June 2023, the Algiers appeals court increased Ihsane’s original prison sentence to seven years, of which two years were suspended.

Freedom of Assembly

Authorities have also imprisoned people for protesting, many were part of the Hirak demonstrations, which erupted in February 2019 calling for political reform.

During the Hirak protests, Algerian authorities arbitrarily arrested, and unlawfully prosecuted and detained political and civil society activists and journalists based on vaguely worded Penal Code provisions such as “harming the security of the state” and “armed and unarmed gathering”, which have both been misused against peaceful protesters. In May 2021, authorities used Law No. 91-19 on public meetings and demonstrations to halt the Hirak protests by requesting prior declaration for every protest.

Mohamed Tadjadit, 29, was known during the Hirak protest movement as “the poet of Hirak,” for his rousing poems and speeches which spoke of the injustices faced by the Algerian people. Between 2019-22, Algerian authorities detained Mohamed four times in four separate cases, all in relation to his participation in peaceful protests or exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly.  

Mohamed Tadjadit

In October 2022, police arrested Mohamed for two videos he posted in which he spoke about the Arab summit and the role of the Algerian diaspora in defending human rights. Most recently, Mohamed was arrested from his family home and was detained incommunicado for four days. He later appeared in El Harrach prison on 2 February 2024. Lawyers confirmed that an investigating judge of Rouiba court ordered his pre-trial detention on 31 January.

Freedom of Association

Algerian authorities are cracking down on members of associations or groups deemed as in opposition of the government, as well as the groups themselves. People have been detained for their membership to or links with associations, many of them prosecuted on bogus charges of terrorism.

In 2021, the authorities shut down the well-known civil society organization, Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse), on accusations of carrying out activities that do not match its status. In 2022, the authorities suspended an opposition party, forcing it to cease all activities and close its premises, and threatened two other parties with a similar fate, claiming that the parties had breached the law by organizing “unauthorized gatherings”. 

Terrorism charges used to shut down groups and prosecute their members

The Algerian authorities have been increasingly using vaguely worded anti-terrorism charges to prosecute people for being members of groups deemed as oppositional. In 2021, the authorities labelled the political organization Rachad and the political group Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), as “terrorist entities”. In the same year, the Penal Code was amended to expand the definition of terrorism to include “attempting to gain power or change the system of governance by unconstitutional means”.

Slimane Bouhafs, 57, Amazigh activist is currently in prison in Algeria on bogus terrorism charges for links to the Mouvement pour l’Autodétermination de la Kabylie (Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie or MAK).  Slimane had served two-years in prison from 2016-2018 after a court sentenced him for “offending the Prophet” and “denigrating the creed and precepts of Islam” in his Facebook posts. After his release, Slimane fled to Tunisia and was accorded refugee status by the UNHCR in 2020.

Slimane Bouhafs

Yet in August 2021, Slimane disappeared, only to reappear four days later in a police station in Algiers. The following month, a judge opened a criminal investigation against Slimane on charges, including “membership in a terrorist organization” and “undermining the integrity of the national territory,” for his alleged links to MAK and for his Facebook posts. On 4 July 2023, an Algiers appeal court confirmed a sentence of three years in prison and a fine against Bouhafs for “undermining the integrity of the national territory”. After he complained about detention conditions in Kolea prison, in January 2024 authorities transferred him to a prison in El Chelef.

The people you see above are just a few of the hundreds of people who have been punished merely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. As of August 2023, there remained dozens of activists, journalists, and state critics in Algerian prisons.

Amnesty International calls on the Algerian authorities to:

Immediately release all those arbitrarily detained and stop the criminal investigations of people simply for peacefully exercising their human rights including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Repeal Law No. 12-06 on Associations and elaborate a new law in line with Algeria’s Constitution and its international obligation to respect and ensure freedom of association

Amend all provisions that criminalizes peaceful association and assembly including Articles 79, 95 Bis, 97, 98 and 100 of the Penal Code. Amend Articles 15, 17, 19, 23 of Law No. 91-19 on Public meetings and Demonstrations to bring it in line with international human rights law.

Amend or repeal all provisions which criminalize free expression, including Penal Code Articles 74, 75, 96, 144, 144 Bis, 146, 196 bis and 290 bis.

The crackdown on human rights in Algeria is increasing, threatening brave voices of dissent with detention or bogus criminal trials and calls for immediate action.

Take action now to end the targeting of state critics, civil society activists, human rights defenders and journalists