Algeria: Over 260 Hirak detainees languishing in prison must be released

The Algerian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release at least 266 activists and protesters imprisoned for participating in the Hirak protest movement, criticising the authorities, denouncing state corruption or expressing solidarity with detainees, Amnesty International said today as Algeria prepares to celebrate 60 years of independence on 5 July.

In May 2022, local watchdogs reported that at least 266 activists and protesters are languishing in Algerian prisons solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly; the authorities must urgently drop all charges against them.

Many protesters are being held in pretrial detention for excessively long periods of time. Others have been handed sentences of up to five years on overly broad, trumped-up charges such as “harming” national security, “undermining national unity”, “offending” public officials, “inciting unarmed gatherings”, spreading fake news, and terrorism.

“Sixty years after Algeria was recognized as an independent nation, basic freedoms and human rights are still being overlooked, trampled upon or actively curtailed,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The unjustified detention of activists and protestors must end. It is shameful that the Algerian authorities continue to the use of overly broad and repressive laws to prosecute individuals solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

On 24 April 2022, Hakim Debbazi, a Hirak detainee, died in custody under unclear circumstances. Debbazi is a 55-year-old father of three children. He had been held in pretrial detention since February 2022 after sharing a Facebook post from another page that called for a protest to mark the third anniversary of the Hirak movement. He was prosecuted for “inciting an unarmed gathering”, “offending public officials” and publishing content that might “harm the national interest”. The court rejected a request for his provisional release from his lawyers, but offered no explanation for the refusal. 

Zakiya Sadeg, Debbazi’s aunt and lawyer, told Amnesty International that he had informed his wife during a visit in April that he was suffering from chest pains and breathing difficulties. He also said he was being held in a small, smoke-filled room that lacked ventilation. Almost one month after Debbazi’s death, Algeria’s Minister of Justice said, citing an autopsy report, that he had died of natural causes.

The unjustified detention of activists and protestors must end.

Amna Guellali, Amnesty International

Out of all cases documented by Amnesty International, at least four detainees have faced additional trials while in prison over charges related to expressing state criticism either online or offline. On 8 June 2020, environmental activist Mohad Gasmi was arrested and later sentenced to five years in prison over a Facebook post that was deemed by the authorities as “glorifying terrorism.” While in prison, he was prosecuted on additional charges related to his participation in environmental activism abroad and communicating with activists online. He was handed an additional three-year sentence.

Journalist Merzoug Touati was also handed an additional prison term while serving his initial one-year sentence for “inciting an unarmed gathering” and publishing content that “undermines national unity”. On 29 May 2022, he was sentenced to one more year in prison and fined $350 USD in a separate case under the same charges. Touati was eventually released on 20 June following a presidential pardon. Charges against him have not been dropped. He received yet another sentence of a year in prison and a fine of $342 USD on 28 June 2022. The latest sentence is the fourth against him in 2022.

After the Hirak protest movement was halted due to Covid-19 in 2020, the Algerian authorities escalated their repression of peaceful dissent. The growing suppression of state critics was not limited to Algerians within the country, but also targeted several individuals residing abroad or seeking refuge overseas.

Earlier this year, one refugee was abducted in Tunisia before being forcibly returned to Algeria and prosecuted on at least 10 charges including “participation in a terrorist organization” for his alleged links to the Movement for the self-determination of Kabylie. 

Also, at least two asylum seekers were deported over their alleged links with unauthorized organizations, while at least three dual nationals residing in Canada were arbitrarily arrested or interrogated upon arrival in Algeria, and then prevented from exiting the country for several weeks or months.