Tunisian authorities must conduct prompt and thorough investigations into the circumstances of the abduction, enforced disappearance and forced return to Algeria of Slimane Bouhafs, an Algerian activist with refugee status from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Tunisia, said Amnesty International today. Under international human rights law, Tunisia must protect refugees and must not expel or return them to a country where they face persecution.
The organization is calling on the Algerian authorities to release him immediately and allow him to leave Algeria. He had previously been imprisoned in Algeria for exercising his legitimate right to freedom of expression in comments posted on Facebook deemed offensive to Islam. His family believes he is at grave risk of mistreatment in Algerian prisons where he had previously been subjected to ill-treatment.
“After facing two years of unjust imprisonment in Algeria, Slimane Bouhafs went to Tunisia seeking safety, but it seems he was not far enough out of the Algerian government’s reach,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The Tunisian government shares responsibility for his fate and should come clean about its role in his abduction and return. His deportation amounts to refoulement and is an extremely worrying precedent for Tunisia. Under international law no one should be returned to a country where they may be at serious risk of persecution or human rights violations. “
Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, was sentenced on 6 September 2016 to three years in prison, for “offending the Prophet” and “denigrating the creed and precepts of Islam” under Article 144 bis 2 of Algeria’s Penal Code, in connection with posts on Facebook insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad. He was denied access to a lawyer throughout his initial trial and was only able to access legal counsel during his appeals trial. Slimane Bouhafs spent almost two years in prison and was released in 2018 after a presidential pardon. He went to Tunisia and was recognized as refugee by the UNHCR in 2020.
A member of his family, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told Amnesty International that Slimane Bouhafs had been abducted in Hay Tahrir neighbourhood, where he lives, on 25 August at 1 pm and neighbours witnessed three men in plainclothes leave a black car parked in front of his house,
“The driver of the vehicle stayed inside while three others went to his apartment and forced him out. One of them was holding a suitcase which apparently contained his belongings, and then they left. The neighbours immediately went to the police and gave their testimonies,” he said.
For four days, the family did not know his whereabouts and feared that he had been forcibly disappeared by the Algerian or Tunisia authorities or non-state armed groups. On 29 August his family learnt through informal connections that he was in custody in a police station in Algiers. On 1 September, he appeared before the investigative judge of the Sidi M’hamed tribunal in Algiers, and was remanded in prison on six charges, which have not been disclosed.
Neither the Tunisian nor the Algerian authorities have made any statement about Slimane Bouhafs, nor have they clarified whether he was expelled or extradited to Algeria pursuant to a request from the Algerian government.
In an official response, UNHCR said it was “gravely concerned about reports of the forced removal to his country of origin of a refugee recognized by UNHCR in Tunisia” adding that the organization was following up on these reports and seeking a review of these allegations by the authorities.
Under international law no one should be returned to a country where they may be at serious risk of persecution or human rights violations.Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa
Tunisia’s potential awareness of, cooperation in, or acquiescence to his forcible transfer there despite his refugee status would constitute a grave violation of the principle of non-refoulement and international refugee law. Slimane Bouhafs’s recognition as a refugee by UNHCR entails a finding that he has a well-founded fear of persecution on his return to Algeria.
In addition, the Convention Against Torture, to which Tunisia is party, explicitly prohibits the extradition of individuals to countries where there are substantial grounds that they would be in danger of facing torture.
Under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Tunisia is also obligated to protect the right to life of individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, including by affording necessary protection to those particularly at risk, such as refugees, and by responding swiftly and effectively where individuals have come under specific threat, as well as to properly investigate threats to their life.
Although the charges against him remain unknown at present, Algerian media outlets have cited unnamed officials confirming that he is being investigated for his supposed membership in the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), which Algeria’s authorities have recently classified as terrorist group.
Since April 2021 the Algerian authorities have increasingly resorted to the use of overly broad charges of “terrorism” or “conspiracy against the state” to prosecute human rights defenders and Hirak activists. On 18 May, the High Council for National Security (HCNS), a consultative body in charge of advising the President of the Republic on security issues, announced that the political opposition organization Rachad and the group MAK, were labelled as “terrorist entities.” In June, the Penal Code was amended to expand the definition of terrorism to include “attempting to gain power or change the system of governance by unconstitutional means.” On 18 August, the HCNS, presided over by President Tebboune, decided to arrest all the members of the two movements, whom the authorities accuse of implication in the Kabylie fires which killed tens of people, until their “radical eradication.”
“Algerian authorities should release Slimane Bouhafs immediately and ensure he is not subjected to any ill-treatment in prison. Under no circumstances should a recognized refugee be returned to the place from which they have fled,” said Amna Guellali.