Algerian human rights lawyer convicted for denouncing violations

The Court of Appeals in Algiers upheld the conviction of a prominent human rights lawyer on Wednesday. Amine Sidhoum was found guilty of bringing the Algerian judiciary into disrepute on 13 April 2008.

His sentence to six month in prison, which is suspended, and a fine of 20,000 dinars (over US$300) imposed by a lower court was confirmed.

The conviction relates to a 2004 newspaper article in which Amine Sidhoum is quoted as saying that the 30 months one of his clients spent in prison without trial amounted to an “abusive judgement”. Amine Sidhoum says that he actually described the case as one of “arbitrary detention”.

Amnesty International has condemned the conviction and expressed fears that Amine Sidhoum’s prosecution is politically motivated.  

“The court’s judgement will be an obstacle for Amine to continue his professional activities as a lawyer concerned with the protection of human rights and the fight against impunity,” said Diana Eltahawy, North Africa researcher of Amnesty International. “Amnesty International considers his case to be part of a wider pattern of harassment by the Algerian authorities of human rights defenders.”

Amine Sidhoum has acted as defence counsel in a number of terrorism-related cases. He has openly denounced human rights violations, including the systematic incommunicado detention of terror suspects in secret locations, torture and other ill-treatment, denial of fair trial guarantees and the failure of the judicial authorities to investigate allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.

He has assisted campaigners for the right to truth and justice for the relatives of thousands of persons who were forcibly disappeared by state security forces during the internal conflict of the 1990s in Algeria and whose fate remains unknown.

This is not the first time that Amine Sidhoum has faced judicial harassment. In August 2006, under various laws governing the organization and security of prisons, he and lawyer Hassiba Boumerdesi were accused of passing prohibited items to prisoners. He was specifically accused of giving several of his business cards containing his contact details to a client in detention. Both lawyers were acquitted by a court in Algiers in March 2007.

Amine Sidhoum reacting to the verdict stressed to Amnesty International his determination to continue his human rights work despite the recurrent harassment. During his 12 November court hearing, the head of the Algerian Bar Association highlighted that no professional mistake has been committed by Amine Sidhoum and that a conviction would not bar him from practicing law. Amnesty International is nonetheless concerned that the guilty verdict can negatively impact Amine Sidhoum’s work as he might be banned from travelling.   

“Amnesty International deplores the message the court ruling conveys that lawyers and others will be penalized for raising awareness of human rights violations,” said Diana Eltahawy. “A climate of open public debate is particularly needed in light of the upcoming presidential elections in April 2009 in the run up to which Algeria’s human rights record and commitments must be discussed without fear of harassment”, added AI.

In recent years, the Algerian government has tightened laws on freedom of expression. Changes to the Penal Code since 2001 have made the work of journalists and human rights defenders more difficult.  Additionally, amnesty measures were passed penalizing public criticism of the conduct of state agents, responsible for human rights violations during the internal conflict of the 1990s.

Amnesty International has, on numerous occasions, expressed concern about the use of criminal defamation charges to prosecute those who express criticism of the authorities or their policies. These include human rights lawyers such as Amine Sidhoum and journalists working in privately-owned media.

Constitutional amendments passed on 13 November 2008 lifted the limit of two presidential terms, paving the way for Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, to run for a third term.