Algerian authorities must drop all charges against five activists facing bogus accusations after they exposed torture testimony, including attempted rape, of a child in police custody, said Amnesty International, on their first trial hearing today.
Hirak movement activists Mohamed Tadjadit, Malik Riahi, Noureddine Khimoud, Souheib Debbaghi and Ahmed Tarek Debbaghi, who have been held in pre-trial detention for almost a year, face prosecution on charges including “publishing fake news”, “undermining the private life of a minor child by publishing a picture that may harm the child” and “defaming public institutions and the judiciary”. Their arrest came after Tadjadit and Debbaghi published a video on Facebook in April 2021, in which a 15-year-old boy sobs uncontrollably and says that he was sexually assaulted by the police.
“Despite the fact that this video went viral in Algeria, causing outrage over the reports of torture of a child, including attempted rape, the Algerian authorities’ response was to silence the messengers instead of investigating the reports,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The charges brought against all five are related to their exercise of freedom of expression in publicizing a child’s testimony. The Algerian authorities must immediately drop all charges, release the five activists and respect their obligations under international law to protect victims and witnesses of torture and other ill-treatment from retaliation.”
The video was taken by Mohamed Tadjadit and Souheib Debbaghi outside a police station where the minor was detained after participating in a peaceful protest. Several activists waited outside the police station to condemn his arrest and demand his immediate release. In the video, the minor sobs as both activists ask him if he was sexually assaulted by the police. In a subsequent video, the child confirmed that the police attempted to rape him, and his mother said that she saw them beating him when she visited the station to check on him.
On 4 April 2021, the police arrested Mohamed Tadjadit in an apartment in Ain Beniane where he was with his friend Malik Riahi. They placed both in police custody before transferring them to prison.
On 5 April 2021, police arrested Souheib Debbaghi, Noureddine Khimoud and Tarek Debbaghi while they were driving in Barika (Batna). They were transferred to Algiers (Cavaignac police station) in the evening. Three days later, a tribunal in Sidi M’hamed in Algiers ordered their provisional detention in connection with the video.
The Algerian authorities must immediately drop all charges, release the five activists and respect their obligations under international law to protect victims and witnesses of torture and other ill-treatment from retaliation.Amna Guellali, Amnesty International
During a press conference on 5 April, the public prosecutor of the appeals court in Algiers announced the opening of an investigation into the child’s allegations. On 8 April, the public prosecutor of the appeals court in Algiers, confirmed at a press conference that all five activists were being prosecuted in relation to publishing and sharing that video. In that conference, the prosecutor discredited the minor’s allegations, saying he was a “drug user” and had a “suspicious relationship” with one of the accused, making homophobic remarks about the five activists, as well as accusing them of exploiting the child for political purposes. He also announced that the authorities had launched an investigation into the ties of the minor as well as the five activists with the political movement Rachad, which the authorities accuse of terrorism. He also accused the five of receiving foreign funding to undermine national unity.
In a communication to the Algerian government, several UN special rapporteurs expressed “alarm at the reports of police violence, including sexual, on the person of a minor” and at “ the statements of the Public Prosecutor questioning these allegations and accusing the child morally, which is likely to call into question the impartiality of the ongoing judicial investigation.”
“The circumstances of the activists’ arrests, alongside the prosecutor’s hateful and unsubstantiated accusations, point to this being an act of reprisal for the release of the video,” said Amna Guellali.
On 28 February 2022, the five activists started a hunger strike to demand their release or the start of their trial. Mohamed Tadjadit, Malik Riahi, Souheib Debbaghi were subsequently kicked, slapped, and beaten in prison to dissuade them from continuing their hunger strike, according to one of their lawyers, who asked not to be named. The prison administration then transferred all five men from Al Harrach prison to Al Bouira prison at 4 am without showing them or their lawyers a transfer order from the public prosecutor and without notifying their lawyers or families. All five stopped their hunger strikes at different times during the third week of the strike, as their demand for the beginning of the trial was finally met and a date was announced.
As a state party to the UN Convention against Torture, Algeria is legally obliged to promptly and impartially investigate all complaints and reports of torture. The UN Committee against Torture, the expert body charged with overseeing the Convention’s implementation, has emphasized that states must protect victims of torture as well as witnesses and others who intervene on their behalf against intimidation and retaliation at all times.
The Hirak is a peaceful protest movement that started in February 2019 calling for radical political change in Algeria.
The five activists face a trial under charges of insulting a public servant, defaming the judiciary, “publishing fake news”, “corruption of a minor”, incitement of a minor to debauchery under articles 144, 146, 196 bis, 326, and 342 of the penal code, as well as “undermining the private life of a child by publishing a picture that may harm the child”, and “exploitation of a minor through the means of communication in immoral matters” under articles 140 and 141 of the law on the protection of minors. They are also accused of possession of drugs under law 04-18 of 2004 on drugs.
Mohamed Tadjadit, nicknamed “the poet of the Hirak” for his poems and speeches during the Hirak gatherings, was previously sentenced to 18 months in prison under the charge of ‘undermining national unity’ for his participation in peaceful protests. He spent several months in detention before his release in January 2020.
On 16 March 2022, Malik Riahi was tried separately in relation to the case of whistleblower Mohamed Abdellah on charge of “displaying to the public publications that prejudice the national interest”, which could get him three years in prison. His trial is still ongoing.