Clampdown on dissent in Algeria continues

by Shelagh Smith

During 2020 and the start of the coronavirus pandemic, repression of Hirak activists, human rights activists and especially journalists has increased. Over 90 people are currently in prison in Algeria for acts related to the Hirak.

On 15 September an appeal court in Algiers sentenced journalist Khaled Drareni to a two-year prison sentence over his coverage of the Hirak protest movement, for “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity” based on his Facebook posts.  Two activists, Samir Benlarbi and Slimane Hamitouche, were each sentenced to a year in jail.

Khaled Drareni is the director of the Casbah Tribune, the correspondent of the French TV5 Monde channel and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Algeria. The harsh verdict is being widely condemned by Algerian and international human rights organizations.

An international support committee has launched a major international solidarity campaign entitled #WeAreKhaled. The European Parliament has also called for his urgent release, and eight independent UN experts condemned the sentence: “We are very alarmed by the extent of the crackdown on dissent in Algeria.

Civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and journalists are increasingly monitored and harassed in the exercise of their legitimate work.” They also expressed concern with an Algerian draft law, which would criminalize the dissemination of fake news and the funding of any association that could “undermine the State or fundamental interests of Algeria.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Algeria 146 out of 180 countries and territories in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2019.

Karim Tabbou, spokesperson for the Democratic and Social Union (UDS) and an iconic figure of the Hirak, received on December 7 a one year suspended prison sentence and a fine. The charges against him were reclassified as “incitement to violence” after he had already been sentenced to one year for “undermining the morale of the army.”  

Karim Tabbou has denounced on numerous occasions the control of the Algerian military apparatus on the political process, and spent 9 months in detention, most of it in solitary confinement.

Sadly, Lakhdar Bouregaa has died at the age of 87 years, from complications of Covid-19. A veteran of Algeria’s war of independence, he was tortured and imprisoned from 1967 to 1975 under president Houari Boumediene. In 2019 he was thrown in jail again for six months for his support for the Hirak, charged with demoralizing the army and harming National Defense.

One activist, Yacine Mebarki, was initially condemned to a 10 year prison sentence and fine of 10 million dinars (20 years of the average wage) for “insulting Islam”, after the police found an old copy of the Koran with one of its pages ripped.  

The real reason is that he is a campaigner for Amazigh (Berber) rights and prominent in anti-government protests. He received enormous solidarity, and his sentence was reduced on appeal to 1 year and 50,000 dinars.

Human rights organisations as well as the European Parliament are demanding the release of detained activists, including Abdellah Benaoum, who had been denied urgent heart surgery since his detention in December 2019. The authorities finally relented in October, and Benaoum is recovering. He has already served one year in prison for criticising the contested 2019 elections and the repression of the pro-reform movement, but remains in prison until September 2021 to serve the rest of a two-year sentence imposed in 2018 for contempt of the President.

On the eve of the trial on 8th December of Lemnouer Hamamouche and Said Benarab, two students at the University of Bejaia, the local student coordination organised a march in their support, which was joined by teachers from the university. The students were charged with being in a peaceful gathering (“attroupement non armée”). The teachers-ATS collective also expressed its unwavering solidarity with the activists Amar Berri, Yanis Adjlia and Marzouk Touati who will appear in court in January.

The former policeman Toufik Hassani began a hunger strike in December after being sentenced to two years in prison and a heavy fine. In October 2019 he had denounced police repression of a student march in Algiers. He was charged with threatening police officers and revealing professional secrets on Facebook.

Sign the petition for Khaled Drareni on Amnesty’s website:  https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/w4r-2020-algeria-khaled-drareni/

*** This article is a reprint from Middle East Solidarity magazine issue 15. Download your pdf of the current issue here. Scroll down for previous issues. During the Covid-19 crisis we are suspending our print publications temporarily, but you can help support our work by making a donation for your copy below. Click to take out an annual solidarity subscription. ***

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