Algeria: Repressive tactics used to target Hirak activists two years on

Algerian authorities have targeted dozens of protesters, journalists and activists with arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, for engaging in peaceful protests and expressing political opinions on social media, said Amnesty International, in a new statement published today to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak protests.

In an investigation of the cases of 73 Hirak activists, protesters or journalists Amnesty International documented how they were arbitrarily arrested, prosecuted and in some cases given lengthy prison terms based on vaguely-worded penal law provisions in the past two years. In some cases, activists were subjected to intrusive phone searches or were dismissed by their employer because of their prosecution. Some reported torture or other ill-treatment while being held.

On 18 February, in an address to the nation President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced early legislative elections and said that he had ordered the release of dozens of protesters who had been detained for their participation in the Hirak protest movement or online publications on social media. At least 37 were released on 19 and 20 February, but 31 remain in prison, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of detainees, a local watchdog group.

Among those released, is prominent journalist Khaled Drareni, who was sentenced to two years in prison for his coverage of the Hirak protest movement, and who featured in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign.

“Amnesty International’s findings are evidence of a deliberate strategy to crush dissent by the Algerian authorities that give the lie to the authorities’ promises of upholding human rights. These are the actions of a government intent on censuring its people for peaceful protest and expressing critical views on social media. Such repressive tactics have no place in a rights-respecting society,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Many of those pardoned by President Tebboune in recent days were peaceful activists who were exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and should never have been detained in the first place.

Many of those pardoned by President Tebboune in recent days were peaceful activists who were exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and should never have been detained in the first place.
Amna Guellali, Amnesty International

“The Algerian government must immediately and unconditionally release any further peaceful protesters, activists and journalists who have been prosecuted or remain in detention for expressing their views or protesting peacefully and drop any outstanding charges against them. We also call on the authorities to amend or repeal provisions in Algerian law that violate the rights to freedom of expression, online or offline, and peaceful assembly.”

Amnesty International’s findings include:

  • Over the past two years, at least 73 individuals have been targeted with arbitrary arrest, prosecution and, in some cases, lengthy prison sentences based on vaguely-worded Penal Code provisions such as "harming" the national security or interest, "offending" public officials or "incitement" to unarmed gathering;
  • Newly added laws criminalizing "fake news" or the breaking of confinement measures during health emergency were used to prosecute several activists who called for the resumption of the protest movement or who criticized the way the authorities responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In many cases protesters, journalists and activists had their phones searched by police. An examination of court documents shows that in some cases, judges used information found on private messaging apps to bring charges against them, in addition to prosecuting them for public Facebook posts.
  • At least seven online activists and peaceful protesters lost their jobs or were dismissed by their employers because of their prosecution.
  • Judicial authorities failed to investigate complaints of torture in detention by two Hirak activists.

Background

On 22 February 2019, largely peaceful mass demonstrations took place across Algeria, initially opposing then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. After Bouteflika stepped down, protests shifted to calling for a radical overhaul of the political system.

In December 2019, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected president and promised that his government would “consolidate democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights”.