Algeria: Pre-election clampdown exposes ‘gaping holes’ in human rights record

Mounting curbs on freedom of expression in the run-up to Algeria’s upcoming elections underscore disturbing shortcomings in the country’s overall human rights record, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today. 

Moves to silence critics and quash social unrest are at the forefront of a number of human rights concerns highlighted by the organization ahead of Algeria’s presidential elections on 17 April, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, is controversially seeking a fourth term. Other challenges include shortcomings in laws that facilitate torture and ill-treatment, and fail to adequately protect women from gender-based violence as well as prevailing impunity for past abuses.   

“Algerian authorities’ strategy has been to nip in the bud any attempt to challenge them or their record. With the upcoming elections, they are up scaling the clampdown and showing they will not tolerate public criticism at any level”, said Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Research. 

 “There appears to be a concerted effort by the Algerian authorities to seize control of the narrative in the run-up to the elections by tightening their stranglehold on freedom of expression. A lack of open debate and restrictions on the right to criticize or protest to express social grievances or political demands cast doubt over the upcoming elections.” 

Several foreign journalists have yet to be granted visas to cover the elections and international human rights groups such as Amnesty International have been withheld visas to the country for years. 

The state of emergency was lifted in Algeria in 2011, yet restrictions continue to be imposed on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Although it is an oil-rich country, social and economic unrest fuelled by corruption, the rising costs of living, high unemployment and lack of access to housing has continued. The Algerian authorities have largely responded to such protests by forcibly dispersing them, as well as harassing and arresting demonstrators and trade union activists. 

Despite a ban on demonstrations in Algiers, following an initial crackdown in early March the authorities have not forcibly dispersed peaceful protests in the capital which were held under heavy security. 

However, the authorities continue to target Algerians, including journalists who stray from the official, pro-Bouteflika narrative. In one harrowing recent example, the wife of a journalist who had covered opposition protests was assaulted by three individuals in plain clothes believed to be members of the security forces. They reportedly threatened her at gunpoint and demanded that her husband stop criticizing the authorities on Facebook, before scalding her with hot water. 

Last month security forces raided Al-Atlas TV, a private TV station which had criticised the authorities in its broadcasts. It was shut down and forced off air on 12 March 2014. Under current laws, only state-sanctioned media are fully licensed, with private channels granted temporary licenses that can be revoked with little warning. 

“Attacking a private television station simply because it dared to broadcast a different view is a reprehensible attack on freedom of expression,” said Nicola Duckworth. 

A 2012 law regulating associations places further restrictions on those wishing to register an independent organization and tightens regulations on foreign funding under the guise of protecting national values or morality. A number of associations that have been critical of government policy, including those seeking to combat corruption and sexual violence, or those demanding truth and justice about enforced disappearances, have yet to be registered. Amnesty International Algeria, which has been legally registered in Algeria since 1991, has most recently been denied the necessary authorization to organize its annual general assembly. 

“As well as a crackdown on civil society, Algeria’s authorities have also failed to implement UN recommendations to close loopholes in existing laws that facilitate torture and ill-treatment. Safeguards against torture in Algerian law are currently woefully inadequate. This is compounded by a dire record of impunity when it comes to violations by the state, a tragic legacy of the country’s bloody internal conflict,” said Nicola Duckworth. 

The hostage crisis at Algeria’s Amenas gas plant in January 2013, in which more than 40 workers and 29 hostage-takers were killed, put a spotlight on the security threats faced by the country as well as the abysmal record of the security forces. Algerian security forces have committed grave abuses including torture, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial executions and secret detention, in the name of fighting terrorism. However the track record of Algeria’s security forces has been disregarded in security cooperation with the USA, France and the UK. 

Wide reforms are also still needed to end discrimination and violence against women and to address migrants’ rights. In addition, a series of amnesty measures granting immunity to perpetrators of a catalogue of appalling abuses from Algeria’s past have only served to entrench impunity. 

“Despite repeated promises of reforms, these gaping holes in Algeria’s human rights record persist, even in areas trumpeted by the authorities as successes. Discrimination and violence against women remain rife,” said Nicola Duckworth.