Algeria: Constitutional reform process undermined by crackdown

The Algerian authorities’ relentless campaign of mass arbitrary arrests and a crackdown on activists and protesters risk undermining the credibility of Algeria's constitutional reform process, Amnesty International said today. A committee appointed by the President has completed a pre-draft of the constitutional revision and will submit it to the President of the republic for final approval.

In a memorandum sent to the authorities, Amnesty International expressed concerns about a number of provisions in the pre-draft of the proposed constitutional revision such as those on the rights to expression and assembly and the right to life, while welcoming some of the strengthened language on women’s rights and economic and social rights.

If the Algerian authorities wish this constitutional redrafting process be taken seriously as part of their stated commitment towards human rights, they must stop arresting opposition activists and release all those already detained or sentenced solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly
Heba Morayef

The crackdown stands at odds with President Tebboune’s promise when he came to power last year to “consolidate democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights” by carrying out essential constitutional reforms.  

“If the Algerian authorities wish this constitutional redrafting process be taken seriously  as part of their stated commitment towards human rights, they must stop arresting opposition activists and release all those already detained or sentenced solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director.

“While peaceful civil society and political activists, as well as journalists, languish behind bars, the constitutional draft stands as a reminder that the authorities' overdue promises of listening to the Hirak protest movement are far from reality.”

Constitutional reform

Since President Tebboune’s post-election announcement of constitutional reforms in December 2019, there has been a complete lack of transparency about the process and timeline. Instead of publishing an online version of the pre-draft to make it available to the public, the authorities announced that a copy had been sent to selected individuals and groups for comments.

Algeria is party to a number of human rights treaties including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Some of the proposed amendments fall short of international standards on other human rights, such as the right to life as it keeps open the possibility to resort to the death penalty. The proposed changes would strengthen the powers of the Supreme Judicial council, which is a self-governing supervisory body, however the government would continue to retain significant powers over the judicial system, including by retaining the President of the republic as president of the council and giving him the power to appoint directly important judicial functions.

While peaceful civil society and political activists, as well as journalists, languish behind bars, the constitutional draft stands as a reminder that the authorities' overdue promises of listening to the Hirak protest movement are far from reality
Heba Morayef

The proposed pre-draft amendments also state that freedom of the press should not be subject to prior limitations or censorship but then condition it on respect for “the fundamental religious, moral and cultural values of the nation,” and regulation by the law.  Both of these keep the door open for authorities to crackdown on journalists and others for criticizing the government. While freedom of expression is also provided for, conditioning it on national law will allow for the retention of repressive las such as the April 2020 Penal Code amendments criminalizing the dissemination of "fake news" with prison sentences of up to three years.

The proposed pre-draft amendments enshrine the right to peaceful assembly, however here too, regulation of “conditions and procedures” is left to the Assembly law which carries heavy criminal penalties for “unarmed gatherings," a provision often used to detain and prosecute peaceful dissent.

Background:

On Friday 19 June, Hirak protests resumed, with police officers arresting at least 500 protesters in 23 cities, according to the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights. Many were released without charge, but at least 70 were prosecuted under Penal Code provisions such as "incitement to unarmed gathering" and "exposure of the life of others to danger" during a pandemic, which could lead to five years in prison. Out of the 70 at least 12 were put on pre-trial detention by various courts in Algeria.

On 21 June, a court in Cheraga convicted Amira Bouraoui - doctor, activist and leader of the Barakat protest movement, which opposed in 2014 then president Bouteflika's bid for a fourth term, - to a year in prison for online posts which criticized President Tebboune.

As of 21 June, at least 69 activists, among them Hirak political and civil society figures such as Karim Tabbou and Samir Belarbi, remain in detention solely for expressing their views online or for participating in peaceful protests.