The worrying decline of individual and collective freedoms in Algeria

The families of those arrested, gathered in Place Audin in Algiers on 28 November 2019, calling for the release of their loved ones. The gathering was broken up by the police. (Zahra Rahmouni)

A tightly packed crowd of people congregate in front of the Sidi M’Hamed Court building in the heart of Algiers. It is Monday 11 November and 42 people are about to face prosecution in one of the most significant trials Algeria has seen in recent months. Most of them are accused of brandishing the Amazigh (Berber) flag during one of the demonstrations held as part of the protest movement (known as the Hirak, which literally means ‘movement’ in Arabic) that has been shaking the country since February 2019.

The significance of the trial is all the greater given that it is taking place just a month before the 12 December presidential election imposed by the army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, and just days after theunprecedented judges’ strike that had brought the country’s courts to a standstill. The strike action was staged in protest at the massive reshuffle, imposed by Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati, affecting some 3,000 judges and prosecutors.

The union that called the strike, the SNM, denounced the executive’s interference in judicial affairs and called for respect for the independence of the judiciary, as enshrined in the preamble to the country’s constitution.

The 40 or so lawyers comprising the Collective for the Defence of Detainees, set up during the Hirak by lawyers known for their commitment to the defence of human rights, spoke out against the “absence of guarantees to ensure a fair and equal trial”. Hopes that the regime would show signs of softening were crushed when 22 demonstrators were given prison sentences of one year (six months suspended and six to be served behind bars) and fined 30,000 dinars (approximately US$250) for “attacking national unity”. Nineteen out of the 20 other detainees tried on Monday 25 November were sentenced to six months in jail, including the young law student Nour El Houda Yasmine Dahmani, who has become one of the faces representing all those referred to as ‘prisoners of conscience’.

The fight against ‘telephone justice’

Having seen acquittals handed down in similar cases by several courts across the country just days before, the defendants’ lawyers and families were feeling optimistic. The sentences passed by the Sidi M’Hamed court led human rights defenders to query the unequal treatment of demonstrators answering to the same charges. “It [the verdict] reinforces all the doubts about the independence of this court, which has not only already made headlines with the flag bearers’ trial, but also for its excessive recourse to pretrial detention,” said Saïd Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH). Pretrial detention orders have virtually become the norm over recent months, despite being defined as an “exceptional measure” in Article 123 of the criminal procedure code.

Every Friday, meanwhile, the demonstrators untiringly condemn this ‘telephone justice’ – a term used to refer to the instructions certain judges receive by telephone before passing sentence – a practice also decried by lawyers. Added to this are the politically motivated postings designed “to filter and transfer judges who are not very compliant to remote areas, to small towns or to courts that do not deal with political matters. They are stripped of the ability to facilitate justice and are confined to minor roles. Those who obey, meanwhile, are appointed to key positions,” Kaddour Chouicha, a trade unionist and head of the Oran branch of the LADDH, told Equal Times just days before he was sentenced to one year in prison on 10 December 2019.

For lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, a human rights activist who has become an emblematic figure of the protest movement, all democratic rights and individual and collective freedoms are under attack: “The media and audiovisual space is no longer open to opponents or people who have an opinion that runs counter to the current political system. Algerians are prevented from entering the capital every Friday and the justice system, which is supposed to be an institution designed to protect human rights and freedoms, has become a tool wielded by the powers that be,” he tells Equal Times.

In 2019, a report on prosperity and wellbeing in the world, published by the Legatum Institute, a London-based think-tank, ranked Algeria 134th (out of 167 countries) in terms of respect for individual freedoms. But as the director of Amnesty International Algeria, Hassina Oussedik, points out: “The violations of freedom of association, assembly and demonstration are not new”.

Demonstrations in the capital have officially been banned since 18 June 2001, following a decision undertaken by the government of Ali Benflis – who is now a presidential candidate. The right to demonstrate and to assemble is limited by the authorisation process, with permits rarely being granted. And in instances when the organisers have gone ahead regardless, the demonstrations have been brutally repressed, as seen in 2011, with the protests that followed a rise in food prices, or in 2014, during the opposition – even back then – to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fourth term, and in 2018, during theprotests staged by medical interns demanding better working conditions.

A year later, the demonstrators of Friday 22 February managed to break the cycle, retaking possession of the streets, thanks to their sheer number and their peaceful approach. But after a few months of vacillation, the authorities are gradually taking back control of public spaces, civil society organisations and the media, targeting grassroots activists, trade unionists and journalists.

It is hard for NGOs to assess the situation “due to the lack of transparency within Algeria’s institutions,” says Oussedik. The exact number of people arrested or injured during the demonstrations is still unknown, but according to the information gathered from the families of detainees and lawyers, Amnesty Algeria estimates that between 100 and 150 people were arrested in the months prior to the launch of the election campaign.

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Harassment and intimidation of trade unionists and community activists

In June 2019, a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) pointed to Algeria’s failings in the area of trade union rights and freedoms. “It can be seen in practice that the Government adopts arbitrary decisions concerning the registration of unions. Accordingly, certain confederations have been refused registration on the grounds that they have affiliates from several sectors, whereas others in the same situation have indeed been registered,” says the ILO. The organisation also censured the anti-union practices deployed by the authorities, such as the cloning and the creation of fake unions – organisations made up of workers close to the government are created with the same or a similar name to the independent union targeted.

Several trade unionists and activists have been arrested since the start of the Hirakprotests. In the west of the country, Kaddour Chouicha was first arrested on Thursday 24 October during a gathering in support of detainees. He was taken to the police station, where his telephone was confiscated, before later being released without charges. “They were hoping to find grounds for charging me on my telephone. “Since they didn’t have a solid case against me, they were trying to find evidence for the prosecution on Facebook pages, in writing or on the phone,” he told Equal Times, adding that his phone has not yet been returned to him. It was after receiving a call to pick up his phone on Sunday 10 December that he was arrested and then directly presented to the prosecutor and the judge, according to his relatives.

On 22 November, he was arrested once again. His wife, journalist Jamila Loukil, was also arrested while covering a rally against the presidential election. They were both released later the same day. Chouicha says has lost count of the amount of times he has been detained in recent years, along with his children in some instances, one of whom was a minor. “I take it as a matter of course, because I am getting kind of used to it. It’s been going on for a long time,” he says, adding that he doesn’t let himself be discouraged by “these harassment and intimidation tactics” aimed at “instilling fear in people”.

“The repression is the same as ever. There has been no improvement. But since people started to speak up for their rights over the last few months the authorities have been forced to return to their former ways, to the despotism, the arrests and the repression. There was a time when the number of activists was very low, but a large part of the population is now coming out onto the streets.” This, he explains, is why the repression is more visible now.

An organisation that has always been in the authorities sights is the Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, or RAJ), established on 4 December 1992, a year after the authorities annulled the vote (following the victory of the Islamist FIS – Islamic Salvation Front – in the first round of the parliamentary elections). “The association managed to rally many young people all across the country. They started doing awareness-raising and advocacy work about citizenship, human rights and gender equality. Our focus is on rights advocacy and working for freedoms and democracy,” explained Fouad Ouicher, the organisation’s general secretary, on the sidelines of a conference on The Law in Algeria, held by RAJ on 16 November. The 34-year-old activist spoke about the obstacles independent associations used to face under the Bouteflika regime, such as the difficulties securing the authorisations needed to hold meetings and conferences.

In recent weeks, ten members of RAJ have been imprisoned, said Ouicher. “This is a message, our way of showing that our association is still standing despite the intimidation and arrests of our members,” he told those attending the 16 November event. A week after the conference, he was also arrested and placed in pretrial detention.

RAJ president Abdelouahab Fersaoui was arrested on 10 October by plainclothes police officers following a sit-in in support of prisoners of conscience in Algiers. A few days earlier, on 6 October, five members of the association were arrested and held in detention on charges of “inciting assembly” and “attacking national integrity and unity”. Amongst them was RAJ founder Hakim Addad.

“The authorities are panicking. This is the first time they’ve had to deal with a movement of this kind and they don’t know what to do,” says sociologist Nacer Djabi, adding that “these charges were already used against opponents in the 1960s and 1970s”. The sociologist thinks that the current leaders have not understood the sociological changes that have taken place in Algeria. “They don’t know how to manage today’s society. They don’t realise that there has been a change in mindset, so they are continuing to operate in the same old way. It is political denial, political autism. They have a roadmap, an arbitrary one, and they want to impose it.”

The spectre of the “foreign hand”

The current socio-political crisis has once again highlighted the political role of the army, which has been concealed in recent years, under the tutelage of the state. The institution, which has always had a direct or indirect influence on the country’s political, economic and strategic objectives, still relies on the historical legitimacy inherited from the independence struggle, won following a bloody war against French colonialism between 1954 and 1962.

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The army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, also the deputy minister of national defence, has become the country’s strongman. He has called, during his many speeches, for unity against “foreign parties” purportedly trying to manipulate the demonstrators to “destabilise the country”. To convince citizens to vote in the 12 December elections, he declared, in September, that “the era of diktats and the manufacture of presidents is definitively over”.

A former commander of the ALN (National Liberation Army) during the war of independence, Lakhdar Bouregaâ, has been in prison since the end of June, charged with “contempt of a state institution” and “undermining army morale”, after criticising the authorities. His past as a freedom fighter was also called into question by the public television broadcaster.

Information and communication sciences professor Redouane Boudjema is outraged by this “revisionism”. A former journalist, he points outs that propaganda tactics such as these are not without precedent.

“In the 1990s [in the midst of the civil war of 1991-2002], there were smear campaigns on the radio, television, the public and private press targeted those opposed to the eradication strategy and the excessive security approach taken by the Algerian authorities to deal with Islamism,” Boudjema recalls. “Emblematic figures from the Algerian independence struggle such as Hocine Aït Ahmed, Ahmed Ben Bella and Ali Yahia Abdenour [a lawyer and human rights defender] were denigrated, accused of working as foreign agents and trying to destabilise the country,” he adds.

News media gagged

As of March 2019, journalists from the public and private media started to denounce the pressure being placed on them and the lack of coverage given to the demonstrations. Dozens held sit-ins in the capital and in front of the national television headquarters, which led to a degree of freedom in the newsrooms. But it was short-lived. After a few weeks of transparency and pluralism in their reporting, the public media and most of the privately-owned media once again fell back under government control.

Since the summer, Algeria’s national television has stopped covering the demonstrations across the country and has stepped up the broadcasting of reports showing support for the election and for the army chief of staff. The state radio broadcaster’s French-language station, Channel 3, has been hard hit by the censorship, and punitive measures have been taken against several journalists who have criticised these practices.

According to Djabi, the media and the judiciary are still the state’s “work tools”. “The danger the system faces is that the political and ideological ‘hands’ it is working with are starting to change and to ask questions, as seen, for example, at Radio Channel 3 or with certain judges,” says the sociologist.

On Saturday 9 November, over 200 journalists responded to the gag on their profession with a joint declaration calling for the defence of the Algerian media. They also condemned the arrests of three of their colleagues, who are still being held in detention. Amongst them is Saïd Boudour, a journalist and human rights defender based in Oran, who has been in pretrial detention since 15 October. No trial date has as yet been set, said Chouicha, before his conviction.

Bureaucracy, lack of transparency and economic dependence in the media industry

Aside from the virtual media blackout of the protests, the overall state of the Algerian media landscape is very troubling. “The authorities often talk about the Algerian press as the freest in the Arab world, but reality negates that, because it’s a system that’s economically dependent on the public authorities,” Boudjema points out.

In the case of the press, this dependence starts with the public printworks that print the majority of the public and private newspapers. “Their debts are tolerated, but any newspaper daring to change its tone is asked to pay up. The news outlets depend on advertising revenues, which are opaquely managed, and there is no law governing the advertising sector,” says the information and communication sciences professor. This has led to the closure of several newspapers and a substantial fall in circulation over recent years.

As for private television channels, “they are tolerated, but not officially authorised. They have no legal status, because they are offshore channels. They have been used to discredit the opposition, to impose Bouteflika’s fourth term and then to sell the idea of a fifth term,” Boudjema continues.

The authorities hinder the work of the media in many and varied ways. Access to information sources is difficult, for example, and sensationalist media outlets are encouraged. The latter include private media groups, renowned for being close to the authorities, that have no qualms about broadcasting rumours and fake news, which leads to a breakdown in the public’s trust in the media as a whole.

Finally, bureaucratic obstacles also hamper the work of foreign journalists, who find it difficult to obtain visas, and Algerian journalists “wanting to work as correspondents for foreign news outlets, who have to battle with convoluted administrative procedures to obtain the accreditation needed to work,” explains Boudjema. The result is a kind of international media blackout.

It is this series of structural and contextual problems that has caused the country to plummet to 141st place out of 180 countries in the 2019 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. The organisation reported that, “an unstable political environment is increasing the threats to the freedom to inform in Algeria.”