Algeria holds 330 political prisoners in its jails, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), an association that accompanies the families of those arrested in the context of anti-government protests in their respective judicial processes. Human Rights Watch counted in January 250 people imprisoned "for their participation in peaceful demonstrations, activism, or expression". A third of them remain in pre-trial detention months later. The latest report by the human rights organisation on the repressive drift of the Algerian regime highlights the curtailment of rights and freedoms in the Maghreb country.
"Activists, journalists and lawyers have been prosecuted for their peaceful activism, their opinions or their professions," HRW notes. "They have also taken legal action to dissolve or restrict the activities of civil society organisations and opposition political parties". To this end, the organisation denounces, the authorities have used a battery of criminal charges related to terrorist offences. In particular, the Algerian regime has invoked article 87 bis of the penal code, reformed with this intention in 2020, which includes a series of offences open to interpretation that extends censorship in pursuit of "national security".
"The legislative framework is increasingly restrictive," notes Reporters Without Borders (RSF). "While article 54 of the constitution guarantees freedom of the press, it also regulates the dissemination of information and opinions". This legal mechanism, in addition to the criminal code, affects all types of civil society platforms. Especially those perceived as part of the opposition. This was explained on Tuesday by the vice-president of the dissolved Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), Saïd Salhi, at a session of the Human Rights sub-committee of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Algerian activist, who has been a refugee in Brussels for the past year, reviewed the wide range of authoritarian reforms introduced by the government headed by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and stressed in particular the "terrorist" status that the state attributes to anyone who does not agree with the government's provisions. "It is a policy of revenge against all civil society organisations", condensed Salhi, who took the opportunity to denounce the situation of his colleagues in Algeria: "They are all in prison".
The president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, Faleh Hammoudi, was arrested in February 2022. Initially sentenced to three years in prison for "offending" public bodies, spreading "false news" that undermined "national security" and running an "unregistered" association - Salhi detailed in his speech how the Interior Ministry ignored his requests to normalise the organisation's legal status - Hammoudi appealed and was able to avoid jail. But few have been as lucky. "Authorities have prosecuted at least eight LADDH members for their activism or expression, four of them - Kaddour Chouicha, Djamila Loukil, Saïd Bouddour, and Hassan Bouras - on unsubstantiated terrorism-related charges," HRW notes.
The case of freelance journalist Ihsane El-Kadi stands out among a long list of cases. An opinion piece published in Maghreb Emergent, the newspaper he founded a decade ago, led, according to his entourage, to his irregular detention last December at the hands of the authorities. In the text, he speculated on a second term for the current president, endorsed by the army high command. He has since been remanded in custody. El-Kadi's trial, like that of the vast majority of detainees, lacks the minimum guarantees.
The resurgence of internal repression in Algeria coincides with its reappearance on the international stage. Rehabilitated as a valid actor in the eyes of the EU because of its vast natural resources in a context marked by the EU-27's pressing need to find an alternative energy source to Russian gas, Algeria has taken the opportunity to strengthen its bilateral relations with Brussels and other European capitals, with Paris and Rome at the forefront. Not so with Madrid, with which it broke off relations over its change of position in favour of Rabat on the Western Sahara dispute.
The apparent overcoming of the Hirak (Movement), the mass mobilisations that put Bouteflika's regime on the ropes four years ago, strengthens its external position. But the internal contestation continues despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the determined attempts to silence the opposition and silence critical voices. The current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a grey civil servant who had served as prime minister in one of the late former president's governments, initially opted for openness, but soon deviated from this path, influenced in part by the indications of the army chief of staff, Saïd Chengriha, the country's real strongman.
In 2021, barely two years after Tebboune landed in El Mouradia Palace following elections boycotted by opposition parties and marred by allegations of fraud, five UN special rapporteurs warned the Algerian government about the nature of its legal changes regarding terrorist offences. According to the group, these changes undermined the fundamental rights of Algerian citizens. However, a year later, the Maghreb country became a member of the UN Human Rights Council despite its record.
Last December, the regime released 40 prisoners of conscience, mostly belonging to the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia (MAK). The gesture was interpreted as a message of appeasement following its entry into the Council. The president of the National Council for Human Rights (CNDH), a state institution, described the accession to this group as a "valuable achievement". Abdelmadjid Zaalani himself, who spoke at Tuesday's session in the European Parliament to discuss human rights developments in his country, defended the "new Algeria" and the "new tools" available to the state, referring to the 2020 Constitution and penal reforms.
The body he heads, he assured, is trying to carry out "a continuous assessment of the human rights situation in Algeria, such as the situation of detainees in various penitentiary and re-education establishments, while planning field visits to clarify their situation". However, his statements in the European Parliament this week showed his support for all restrictive measures that appeal to national security concerns.
Audience productive avec le President @TebbouneAmadjid. Nous avons parlé des défis communs bilatéraux et régionaux— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) March 13, 2023
Au cœur de nos discussions: situation au Sahel, l’escalade préoccupante au Moyen Orient et la guerre d'agression Russe contre l'Ukraine et son impact dans le monde pic.twitter.com/YEXBIvvDHc
The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, on Sunday evening published the report on his two-day visit to Algeria, which served to launch his "renewed partnership" with the Maghreb country. On the agenda were, among other issues, cooperation in legal matters, the diplomatic crisis with Spain, the control of migratory flows and energy exchanges. The government's repressive drift was relegated to the background. But the head of European diplomacy assured that he had conveyed Brussels' concerns about respect for the rule of law and civil liberties to both the president and his prime minister, Aiman Benabderrahmane.
"The European Union attaches great importance to respect for freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association," Borrell stressed. Bilateral relations include governance, respect for the rule of law and the promotion of fundamental rights as a "priority theme". But the EU's ability to influence political decisions in North Africa has been undermined. Europe's energy needs shield Tebboune's government for the time being.