Algeria: Authorities step up clampdown ahead of the presidential elections

The Algerian authorities have escalated their pre-election crackdown on protests carrying out waves of arbitrary arrests, forcibly dispersing peaceful demonstrations against presidential elections and prosecuting and imprisoning dozens of peaceful activists in recent weeks, said Amnesty International.

Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on 12 December but are widely opposed by demonstrators across Algeria, mostly from the Hirak protest movement.

A wave of arrests targeting protesters that began in September has intensified since campaigning for the presidential elections began on 17 November.

Since campaigning for the presidential elections began, Algeria’s authorities have stepped up their assault on freedom of expression and assembly

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

 “Since campaigning for the presidential elections began, Algeria’s authorities have stepped up their assault on freedom of expression and assembly- signaling that they have little tolerance for Algerians calling for a change to the system,” said Heba Morayef, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.  

“Millions of Algerians have shown through their sustained weekly protests over the past 10 months that they believe in peaceful protest as a collective way to call for change. Instead of attacking peaceful protesters – including those opposing the presidential elections – Algeria’s authorities should be upholding the rights of Algerians to demonstrate peacefully and express themselves freely.”

Crackdown on anti-election protesters

Arrests began to significantly increase with the start of the election campaigning with at least 300 people swept up in waves of arrests between 17 and 24November, according to human rights lawyers and the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH, Ligue Algerienne de Defense des Droits de l’Homme).

Negative rhetoric against opponents of the presidential elections has also intensified in recent days.

On 17 November, at least 37 peaceful protesters opposing the presidential elections were arrested during an election campaign rally held by Ali Benflis, one of the presidential candidates, in Tlemcen, western Algeria. Four protesters were convicted of “inciting an unarmed gathering” and received 18-month prison sentences and another 14 were given two-month suspended prison sentences.

More than 150 people were also arrested in Algiers on 20 November during a nighttime protest opposing elections, according to Le Comité National pour la Libération des Détenus (CNLD). Most were later released but eight were charged with “harming national security” and “inciting an unarmed gathering” and remain in pre-trial detention. Another 21 were released but must appear again in court on 6 January, on charges including “inciting an unarmed gathering” “civil disobedience” and “harming national security”.

Halim Feddal, a human rights defender and founder of the Algerian National Association Against Corruption, was arbitrarily arrested on 17 November as he left a peaceful demonstration opposing elections in Chlef. He remains in pre-trial detention.

Other arrests of anti-election campaigners have been carried out in Ouargla, Boumerdes, Annaba and other cities during presidential candidates’ rallies.

Amnesty International has also recorded at least three cases of ill-treatment of detainees in custody. Lawyers of Chems Eddine Brahim Lalami, an activist from Bordj Bou Arréridj, arrested on 20 November, said they saw bruises on his face and arm and was unable to stand up, indicating he was beaten in custody. He has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest awaiting trial and is currently on hunger strike. Another peaceful political activist Sofiane Babaci was beaten upon his arrest on 26 November in Boumerdes, according to one of his lawyers. Younes Redjal, a protester arrested during a demonstration in Oran the same day had bruises on his arm and was nearly unconscious when he was found by LADDH’s members at a police station. Redjal told Amnesty International that he was beaten upon his arrest.

Wave of arrests targeting Hirak protest movement

Since September onwards, the authorities have also stepped up arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters from the Hirak movement who have held weekly demonstrations each Friday since 22 February. On 22 November, dozens were detained across the country. Among those briefly detained was

Kaddour Chouicha, member of LADDH.  On the same day in Algiers two activists from the Youth Action Rally (Le Rassemblement actions jeunesse – RAJ) were arrested at their offices after returning from a protest. They have been accused of “harming national security” and “inciting an unarmed gathering”.

Security forces also forcibly dispersed a gathering of mothers of Hirak detainees in Algiers on 28 November.

On 29 November at least 25 peaceful protesters were arrested during the protests in Algiers. At least three of them remain in pre-trial detention.

Expressing opposition to Algeria’s planned presidential elections or criticism towards the authorities is not a crime.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

“Expressing opposition to Algeria’s planned presidential elections or criticism towards the authorities is not a crime. The Algerian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release everyone who has been detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or assembly,” said Heba Morayef.

Prison terms for peaceful activists

At least 28 peaceful protesters have been convicted simply because they were carrying or found to have the flag of the Amazigh community in their possession.

On 11 November 22 people were sentenced to one year in prison including a six-month suspended sentence and a fine of 30,000 DZD. On 12 November, a further six people were sentenced to one year in prison including a six-month suspended sentence. They are planning to appeal the sentences. 

“Using prison sentences to punish demonstrators simply for having a flag in their possession is outrageous and violates Algeria’s obligations under international human rights law. These harsh sentences are a dangerous indication of the Algerian authorities’ intolerance of peaceful dissent,” said Heba Morayef.

As well as targeting peaceful protesters, Algerian authorities have also stepped up harassment of journalists – with at least five journalists arrested since 28 November in Algiers. Four were released a few hours after their arrest. One journalist told Amnesty that their equipment was confiscated and they were threatened with being charged with “offending” public officials unless they agreed to sign the interrogation report.

On 26 November, CNLD reported that artist Abdelhamid Amine, known as Nime, was arrested in Oran during a raid on his workplace after his satirical drawings depicting the presidential candidates, the Chief of staff of the army and the ex-president of the country were widely distributed on social media. He is currently detained awaiting trial. 

“No one should face harassment, intimidation or arrest for covering protests or expressing criticism of electoral candidates,” said Hassina Oussedik, Director of Amnesty International Algeria.