by Shelagh Smith
This is an article from the current issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine – help us continue our work by donating £2 for a digital copy online
Seventeen months after the protest movement, or Hirak, exploded onto the streets of Algeria in February 2019, there has been no fundamental change to the system since independence in 1962.
The demand remains for a civil, not a military state. Protesters demonstrated peacefully every week until mid-March 2020, when the authorities banned marches due to the coronavirus outbreak – although the opposition had already suspended them.
Despite a few prisoner releases in July, opponents, journalists, independent media and internet users have been increasingly persecuted by Algerian authorities for expressing critical opinions in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic, with more frequent arrests and jail sentences.
Recently, the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) found that the majority of political detainees face vague charges such as “undermining national unity”, “harming national security” and “harming the army’s morale”, often based on social media posts.
Three activists of the Hirak were released from prison on July 2. They had been arrested on June 12 in Bejaia, Kabylia, during a rally to support detainees.
The prosecution had demanded three years in prison for “inciting unarmed assembly”, “publication which could harm the national interest” and “endangering the lives of others during the period of confinement”.
The three are: former detainee, Merzoug Touati, a blogger and journalist for L’Avant-Garde Algérie, whose website is blocked in the country; Yanis Adjila, a human rights activist; Amar Beri, an activist of the Hirak.
Several other news sites like lematindalgerie.com are blocked in Algeria.
On the same day, the Bejaïa court released two other activists, Khaled Tazaghart (a resigned MP) and Zahir Moulaoui (a former policeman), with six months’ suspended sentences.
The prosecution had demanded one year and two years respectively. They had been arrested on July 1 at a rally in support of Merzoug Touati, Yanis Adjlia and Amar Berri.
On the same day, July 2, four well known figures of the protest movement were also released, although three of them provisionally:
Karim Tabbou, one of the most prominent figures of the movement and founder of the UDS (Democratic and social union), was provisionally released, having been sentenced to one year for “undermining the integrity of the national territory”.
He was first arrested in September 2019 and kept in prolonged solitary confinement. In March he was sentenced to one year for a speech on his party’s Facebook page where he criticised the role of the army in politics. He still faces trial this September for “damaging army morale”.
“The prison is a factory to transform anger into political energy” – Karim Tabbou
Amira Bouraoui, a gynaecologist and prominent activist, was also released provisionally, together with Samir Benlarbi and Slimane Hamitouche who had been detained since March for “harming national unity” and “illicit gathering”.
Significantly, the journalist Khaled Drareni was not released at the same time. Drareni, a correspondent for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), is in pre-trial detention, having been arrested in March because of his reporting of demonstrations in Algiers.
The day before, six other activists had received a presidential pardon. But the CNLD (National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees) estimates that nearly 60 Hirak detainees are still in prison, most of them for Facebook publications.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune hinted of other prisoner releases, judging that the country was moving towards a “much calmer” political climate.
But the only action that would show the regime has any intention of addressing the demands of the movement would be the immediate and unconditional release of all activists. Tebboune unveiled his constitutional reform project promising more rights and freedoms, at the same time as authorities are incarcerating and prosecuting anyone who speaks up and tells the truth.
Interviewed on Berbère Télévision after his release, Karim Tabbou said “The best way to make Spring is to release all the birds from their the cages,” referring to the Hirak prisoners.
“The regime wants to put us in cages, this is the trap. As long as people sing inside the cages, it doesn’t bother them”. He added “The prison is a factory to transform anger into political energy”.