Algeria: End repression against Hirak activists and journalists amid COVID-19
The Algerian authorities must urgently halt arbitrary prosecutions aimed at silencing Hirak activists and journalists amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Amnesty International. The organization is calling for everyone targeted by these sham trials to be released immediately.
Between 7 March and 13 April alone, at least 20 activists were either summoned for interrogation by the police, or arrested and held in pretrial detention, or sentenced on charges stemming from their exercise of their right to freedom of speech or peaceful assembly in six cities in Algeria, according to human rights lawyers.
The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all peaceful activists detained solely for expressing their views online and offline and/or calling for a democratic change
“At the time when all national and international eyes are focused on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Algerian authorities are investing time in accelerating prosecutions and trials against activists, journalists and supporters of the Hirak movement,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director.
“The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all peaceful activists detained solely for expressing their views online and offline and/or calling for a democratic change. By arresting and imprisoning activists, the authorities are not only punishing them for their free speech, but also endangering their health given the risks of a COVID 19 outbreak in prison."
In February 2020, the Hirak protest movement marked its first anniversary, reiterating that protesters’ calls for political reform remained unanswered. In early March, the Algerian authorities ordered a ban on mass protests as part of the measures to tackle Covid-19. Human rights organisations involved in the protest movement announced its suspension as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Algeria increased.
Yet, the authorities continued targeting Hirak activists. According to human rights lawyers, at least 32 people arbitrarily detained during the Hirak movement protests remain behind bars, eight of them were arrested since the start of the pandemic between 25 February and 13 April. All are facing prosecutions under the Penal Code for a range of offences, mainly "harming the integrity of the national territory", "incitement to unarmed gathering," or "publications meant at harming the national interest." None of these charges are legitimate offences under international law since they criminalize free speech.
Amnesty International conducted interviews with eight lawyers, four Hirak activists, two family members of detainees and the families of two media workers. The organization also reviewed a number of court documents of activists' trials.
Arbitrary summons of activists
According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), between 26 March and 12 April, the authorities summoned at least 12 activists about views they had expressed online – mostly in support of the Hirak protest movement.
By arresting and imprisoning activists, the authorities are not only punishing them for their free speech, but also endangering their health given the risks of a COVID 19 outbreak in prison
On 6 April, three police officers interrogated one Hirak activist and teacher from M'sila for posting online posts including an image with "national repression" written on it. Three days later, another Hirak activist from the city of Batna, was also interrogated in the local commissariat of Merouana for posts he published on Facebook, including a livestream video of him chanting an Algerian protest song.
Both activists were later released after signing interrogation statements. Police officers told them those statements would be sent to the Prosecutor's office, to decide whether to press charges against them.
The two activists summoned by the police in M'sila and Batna told Amnesty International that no protective measures from COVID-19 were taken during the interrogations that lasted for at least three hours.
Politically motivated trials
On 9 April, Sidi M'hamed Court convicted Hirak protester and political and human rights activist Ibrahim Daouadji, arrested on March 16, to six months in prison and a 50,000 Algerian dinars (around 450 USD) fine for a video he posted online, where he criticized his detention conditions after he was held in pre-trial detention for three months between November 2019 and January 2020.
On 6 April, Sidi M'hamed First Instance Tribunal in Algiers sentenced Abdelouahab Fersaoui, the head of Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse (RAJ), to a year in prison and a fine for participating in the Hirak protests and for criticizing the way authorities dealt with the protest movement in several social media posts.
On 24 March, an appeal court in Algiers convicted Karim Tabbou, the head of the opposition political party Union Democratique et Sociale (UDS) to one year in prison and a fine of 50 000 Algerian dinars (around 405 USD) on similar charges for videos published on the Facebook page where he criticized the army's role in the Hirak. Tabbou faces a separate trial scheduled on 27 April, on charges of "harming the national integrity of the territory" which could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years for a speech he made in the city of Kherrata on 9 May. Held in prolonged solitary confinement in Kolea prison, Tabbou has experienced deteriorating health since suffering a spike in blood pressure and fainting in court on 24 March.
At the time when all national and international eyes are focused on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Algerian authorities are investing time in accelerating prosecutions and trials against activists, journalists and supporters of the Hirak movement
On 7 March, political activist Samir Benlarbi and national coordinator of the families of disappeared Slimane Hamitouche were arrested in Algiers during a protest. The Sidi M'hamed Court also prosecuted them for "harming the integrity of the national territory" and "incitement to an unarmed gathering." Both are now awaiting trial in El Harrach prison where they are at risk of a 10-year prison sentence.
Harassment of media
Journalists have also faced harassment by the authorities for their interviews, articles or media coverage of the protests.
On 15 April, Minister of Communication Ammar Belhimer, admitted that the authorities, without prior notification, blocked two online independent media, Maghreb Emergent and RadioMPost, pending "further legal proceedings" against its director, Ihsane El Kadi, for "defamation and insult" against president Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
On 27 March, police arrested Khaled Drareni, a prominent journalist, in Algiers. Drareni, correspondent for TV5Monde and Casbah Tribune's director is currently held in pre-trial detention in Kolea prison because of his reporting on the 7 March Hirak protest. He faces charges of "incitement to unarmed gathering" and "harming the integrity of the national territory" which could lead to 10 years in prison. Drareni has covered the protests since the beginning, recording demonstrations and posting footage on his Twitter account.
As World Press Freedom Day is approaching, Amnesty International calls on the Algerian authorities to respect the freedom of press in the country as journalism should never be a crime punishable by prison sentences.