HRW Urges Algeria to Free Activists Held For Peaceful Protests

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging the Algerian authorities to immediately release human rights defenders, civil society activists, opposition figures, journalists, and all others arbitrarily imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to speak and assemble.

In a press statement issued by the Rights Organisation, it stated that three years after the movement known as the ‘Hirak’ began its massive weekly peaceful street marches for political reform, the authorities are holding at least 280 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, who are facing or convicted on the basis of vague charges.

“Some face charges of terrorism based on a definition so broad that it is arbitrary. This number has soared over the past year, while the authorities have also moved against associations and political parties deemed supportive of the Hirak,” HRW stated.

Acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Eric Goldstein said Algerian authorities should release the hundreds of people imprisoned for their peaceful speech or pro-Hirak activism insisting that piling on dubious charges of ‘terrorism’ and vague charges like ‘harming national unity’ cannot hide the fact that this is about crushing the critical voices of a peaceful reform movement.

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On February 22, 2019, millions of Algerians marched through Algiers and other cities to oppose a fifth term for the country’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The protesters marched through the streets every Friday thereafter and came to be known as the Hirak (Arabic for “movement”). They forced Bouteflika’s resignation in April 2019 but when the movement opposed plans later that year to hold presidential elections without first putting reforms in place, the authorities began to arrest the perceived leaders of the informal movement.

 President of Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune

The crackdown intensified after the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president in December 2019, though the mass marches halted in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Around the second anniversary of Hirak, in February 2021, the protests resumed, but lost momentum three months later, due to repression and a weakening of the movement.

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According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), created in August 2019 by activists and lawyers to monitor arrests and trials, at least 280 people are currently imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions, most of them in relation to the Hirak. The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (Ligue Algérienne pour la défense des droits de l’Homme, LADDH) estimated that the number in custody was 330 as of February 5, 2022.

Ahead of the Hirak anniversary, at least 40 people who were held in Algiers’ El Harrach prison began a hunger strike on January 28 to protest what they considered their arbitrary detention, the Collective for the Defense of Prisoners of Conscience, a lawyers group, said. Most strikers are people in pre-trial detention who have been awaiting trial for months.

On June 2021, President Tebboune amended the penal code by presidential decree, expanding Algeria’s already overbroad definition of “terrorism” in article 87 to include “to work for or to incite by any means, to accede to power or change the system of governance by non-constitutional means”; and to “harm the integrity of national territory or to incite doing so, by an means.”

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The authorities have used this article to prosecute an increasing number of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.

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