By Anzar Atrar and David Karvala
At 4 am on Saturday 21 August, Spanish authorities took Mohamed Abdellah —along with around 30 other Algerians— from the migrant custody centre in Barcelona and deported him. This was bad news for all of them, of course. But Abdellah, an Algerian anti-corruption activist and whistle-blower, was wanted by the military authorities in his country.
Abdellah’s arrest on 12 August, when he had gone to renew his asylum request in Vitoria in the Basque country, where he had been living with his wife and two small children, had provoked protests among the Algerian diaspora around the world. The news that Spain had denied him asylum and sent him back to his persecutors provoked widespread anger.
Let us look at the background to all this.
Algeria is experiencing its most serious political crisis since its independence from French colonisation in 1962.
As MENA Solidarity Network has documented, 16 February 2019 marked the beginning of the movement known as the Hirak (movement in Arabic), mobilisations that started in Kherrata in Kabylia, the Amazigh or Berber territory in the north of the Algerian state. These protests, rejecting the candidacy of the then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term and demanding a real democratic transition with the departure of the entire current political class, rapidly spread across the country.
The protests have not ended, despite the temporary suspension caused by the Covid pandemic. So far they have achieved the departure of Bouteflika and the imprisonment of many of his ex-ministers, but the desired democratic transition has not taken place.
The core of the regime, the top military officers, remain in power, with a nominal civilian façade. They managed the election of a new president of the Republic, Abdelmadjid Tebboune —who is none other than Bouteflika’s former Prime Minister— in December 2019 with a turnout of 39 percent or less (on official figures) while in Kabylia there was an effective boycott and general strike.
There were minor concessions — a few reforms and the release of some activists— but they didn’t convince people. Meanwhile, to the political discontent we must now add the worsening socio-economic situation of the majority of Algerians, because of the fall in oil prices and the crisis created by the pandemic.
In this context, the regime’s only answer has been to increase the repression they have used against the Hirak from the beginning.
Since May 2021 there has been a serious escalation in the repression, violence and imprisonment facing all opposition, civil society, journalists, workers, political organisations, human rights defenders and lawyers.
As part of this crackdown, in May the government placed two organisations on its list of terrorist groups: the MAK (Movement for the self-determination of Kabylia) arose out of the “Black Spring” of 2001, when protests in Kabylia were violently repressed, leaving 126 Kabyles dead and thousands severely injured;Rachad (a movement founded in 2007 which includes figures who previously belonged to FIS, the Islamist party). Both are civil society organisations that play a role in the Hirak, but the regime started hunting down their activists and imprisoning them for belonging to a “terrorist organisation”. In June, Algeria’s penal code was amended to expand the definition of terrorism to include “attempting to gain power or change the system of governance by unconstitutional means”.
This summer, spectacular fires have swept Kabylia, causing the death of more than a hundred people, as the flames ravaged numerous villages. The authorities took advantage of the situation to claim in the national media that the fires were deliberate, and to blame MAK and Rachad for the disaster. According to the Algerian foreign ministry, such a criminal act could not have occurred without the complicity of Morocco and Israel.
All this created a situation where a crowd in Kabylia lynched a young man who had been presented by the police as responsible for the fires. It turned out that the 35-year-old artist and activist, Djamel Bensmail, was one of many people from across Algeria who had gone to the region in solidarity to help the local population. In his own words, Djamel had said: “The people of the region gave me a lesson in solidarity, courage and power. I hope that every free Algerian will play a role. You should know that in this part of Kabylia, there is no electricity, no water, no gas, no bread and no communication networks. I have never seen such a disaster, and the inhabitants also admit to having never experienced this.” To that should be added the health crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with hospitals unable to provide oxygen supplies.
This tragic death — partly a product of the official propaganda — was in turn used by the regime to intensify the attack on the opposition, issuing international arrest warrants against the leaders of Rachad and MAK, accusing them of terrorism.
With this, they both justify their attacks on the opposition and hide their inability to deal with forest fires. Algeria, the 59th largest economy in the world, is the 6th biggest arms importer on the planet, having increased its arms imports by 64 per cent over the last five years. But it didn’t have a single plane capable of fighting the forest fires that occur every year, and are now worsening due to climate change.
Hate speech against Kabylia
The horrific lynching of Djamel has also strengthened the climate of hostility against the Kabylians, with hate speech spreading widely on social media. Anti-Kabyle views have long existed, and have been promoted by the regime. But the unity in the Hirak struggle meant it was weakening, and solidarity grew between Kabylia and the rest of the country, as shown by the numbers carrying the Amazigh flag on the demonstrations, even though the flag and other Kabyle flags were banned by the regime. Now it is clear that the divisions are being promoted from within the regime itself. The regime’s war on the Hirak is focussed on Kabylia, and the tactic of divide and rule, because Kabylia is the strongest centre of resistance within the Hirak. The region has long suffered oppression which has bred this spirit of resistance.
Prominent generals close to Gaid Salah, the former Chief of Staff in the Algerian army are reported to be associated with a racist project called “zero Kabyle” which aims to flush out and exclude all Kabylians from positions of responsibility within the state. Although several of these military figures were sacked by president Tebboune last year, the continuation of anti-Kabyle propaganda shows that the regime has not abandoned its divide-and-rule tactics. These worrying developments resemble the rise of the far right in Europe and North America.
Faced with this explosive internal situation and the deterioration of the country’s economic indicators, the regime is preparing for the worst and has recently announced the breaking of diplomatic relations with Morocco, which it accuses of supporting the MAK.
With this criminalisation of political activity, the Algiers regime seems to have the objective of making the situation deteriorate even further, perhaps even trying to provoke violence, In the early 1990s, the regime adopted a disastrous strategy of violent repression, pushing Islamist opposition groups towards armed rebellion after the army mounted a coup to stop national elections after the Islamist FIS movement looked set to form a government.
Abdellah became aware of massive corruption on the border, often involving high ranking Gendarmerie officers. After unsuccessfully trying to alert the authorities, he ended up contacting Algerian anti-corruption activists in order to denounce what was happening on social networks.
It is in this context that Mohamed Abdellah has been deported back to Algeria He was a member of the Algerian Gendarmerie, the rural police branch of the Algerian armed forces. He worked with a helicopter and his duties included video surveillance of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, aimed at preventing smuggling and other illegal trafficking.
Finally, fearing for his life if his identity was discovered, he left Algeria on 8 November 2018 to seek asylum in the Spanish state. Mohamed Abdellah continued his campaign against corruption on social media, obtaining a massive following among Algerians on Facebook and YouTube.
In March 2021, an Algerian court issued international arrest warrants for four people they accused of terrorism and money laundering. One was Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a former Algerian diplomat who had resigned from his post during the civil war of the 1990s and had gone to live in Britain. He was one of the founders of Rachad, and is very active on social networks in support of the Hirak. Another was Mohamed Abdellah, by now living in the Basque capital, Vitoria, with his wife and two small children.
Just at that period, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the “increasing crackdown on members of the pro-democracy Hirak movement” in Algeria.
Abdellah’s wife later declared that “my husband has been threatened with death by the [Algerian] government… these threats have included me and my children.”
Yet rather than treating this as a genuine case in need of political asylum, the Spanish government chose to deport Abdellah.
Spain deporting dissidents
On his visit to renew his asylum claim on 12 August, Abdellah was informed that his request had already been rejected, and he was immediately arrested and transferred to the migrant internment centre (CIE) in Barcelona, pending deportation.
The Algerian diaspora started to mobilise very quickly. Mohamed Larbi Zitout reported on the case intensively on his YouTube channel, followed by almost 800,000 people, and there were protest rallies in different cities, from France to Canada.
Activists in the social movements in Barcelona were contacted by North Africans involved in the Spanish wide networks of Unitat Contra el Feixisme i el Racisme (UCFR, Unity Against Fascism and Racism, the Catalan sister movement of Stand Up To Racism in Britain). As it was the middle of August, when Catalan social movements are generally inactive, and given the urgency, there was no time to discuss an “official” intervention, but UCFR’s networks still worked well informally in establishing contact with Abdellah’s family in Vitoria, and with both human rights lawyers and the specific movements working around internment centres in Barcelona.
On Thursday 19 August, Abdellah’s family denounced that a group of internees at the custody centre, and specifically around 30 Algerians, including Mohamed, had been subjected to PCR tests. This was understood to be in preparation for imminent deportation, and the internees declared a hunger strike, rejecting expulsion and demanding their freedom.
An appeal for urgent preventive measures to impede Abdellah’s deportation was sent that same day to the European Court of Human Rights. The next day, Friday 20 August, the Court replied, stating that they hadn’t even put the case before a judge, since there was not yet a definitive expulsion order.
However, it turned out that that order had been issued in Madrid that same morning but it was only delivered to Abdellah’s lawyer in a fax at 1 minute before 10 pm that Friday night. Just six hours later, at 4 am on Saturday 21 August, Mohamed Abdellah —along with the rest of the Algerians— was taken from the migrant custody centre to be deported. The last minute urgent appeals to the European Court and Madrid courts were unsuccessful, and the next news of Abdellah was that he was in custody in Algeria, and would be put on trial.
Showing the depths to which the Algerian regime is prepared to go, Slimane Bouhafs, an Algerian Christian convert and UNHCR-recognised refugee, was abducted in Tunis on 25 August and appeared in court in Algiers on 1 September, to be remanded in prison on six undisclosed charges. In 2016 he had been was sentenced to three years for “offending the Prophet” and “denigrating the creed and precepts of Islam” in connection with posts on Facebook. He was released in 2018 after a presidential pardon, went to Tunisia and was recognised as a refugee by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 2020. According to unconfirmed reports Bouhafs is being investigated for membership of MAK.
Exactly the same morning as Abdellah and the others were being deported, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was being praised by EU leaders for his humanitarian principles in welcoming Afghan refugees. They were on an official visit to Torrejón, the Madrid military airbase that had been established as an evacuation centre for Afghans escaping from Kabul.
Also, that same morning, Spanish riot police were being deployed against a group of 41 migrants that had managed to reach Spanish territory, la Isla de Tierra, a small uninhabited island within the enclave of Ceuta, in the north of Morocco. The NGO Walking Borders denounced that the police attacked the group with full riot gear, including tear gas, despite their shouts that they were appealing for asylum. Half the group were women (three of them pregnant) or children (including babies) while several of them were from countries undergoing armed conflicts.
The current Spanish government is a coalition of the Socialist Party, PSOE, and the more left wing Podemos. When it came to office in June 2018 it welcomed a boat full of refugees that had spent weeks looking for a port. However, by early 2019, what had presented itself as “the most progressive government in Spain’s history” had already forgotten its promises to welcome refugees. One factor was doubtless the rise of the far right VOX party; as in many countries, faced with such challenges, mainstream parties prefer to copy their racism rather than fight it.
In recent months there has been a series of appalling actions by the Spanish government against migrants and refugees: illegally expelling migrant children from Ceuta; backtracking on a commitment to legalise children of migrant origin that had grown up and reached the age of 18 in Spanish children’s homes; presiding over a continuous death toll of people trying to reach Spanish territory in precarious boats, a result of the closing of the borders and the absence of secure routes for migrants/refugees. There was even a very broad call this August for the resignation of the interior minister over these actions; the same minister who was ultimately responsible for Abdellahs’s deportation.
In the case of Abdellah, the Spanish government possibly had an added motive. Algerian opposition activists pointed out that the gas deal between Spain and Algeria — by far its main provider of this fuel — was due to be renewed at the end of October 2021. Morocco currently is provided with natural gas through the Maghreb-Europe pipeline that links Algeria to Spain and runs across the Kingdom. Just days after Abdellah’s deportation, Algeria announced that gas supplies to Spain would not be affected by its diplomatic conflict with Morocco — the route of an important pipeline. It seems the gas contract will be renewed without problems, using a second pipeline, Medgaz, that does not cross Morocco.
At the time of writing, there are reports of other Algerian activists having been detained in the Spanish state and facing deportation.
Another important point is that, far from being scandalised by the abuse of terrorism charges against social movement activists, the Spanish state uses the same tactic. On 20 August, the public prosecutor of Spain’s National Court — a special tribunal that is an inheritance from Franco’s dictatorship — announced plans to charge Catalan pro-independence activists with belonging to a terrorist organisation. Following the independence referendum on 1 October 2017, half the Catalan government, and leaders of the two biggest civic organisations in Catalonia, were imprisoned; the rest had gone into exile.
So the repressive actions of the Algerian regime must have seemed reasonable to the Spanish government, while any lingering doubts would have been pushed aside in the interests of business.
Debates and confusion
From the point of view of human rights, however, there was no room for doubts.
Sadly, though, the issue brought to light many problems and confusions.
It turned out that part of the support for Abdellah, for the Hirak movement and even for Kabylian autonomy, came from supporters of the Moroccan monarchy. This was a cynical and hypocritical attitude. They were using Abdellah’s case as revenge against Algeria because, just as cynically, this country claims to support the rights of Western Sahara, currently occupied by Morocco. So there were tweets complaining that the Spanish state had given medical treatment to the “terrorist” leader of the Sahara independence movement, Polisario, while they were deporting Abdellah.
Luckily, such views only represented a minority; most activists of Moroccan origin in the Spanish state are more than aware that the Moroccan regime is just as undemocratic as that of Algeria, and that it makes no sense to line up with one against the other.
On the other hand, some Algerian left activists argued against defending Abdellah as he was an “Islamist”. To quote one comment on Facebook: “the fate of someone pro-Rachad should not worry communists like us”. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Abdellah can be described as “Islamist”, this attitude reflects a serious problem that has afflicted the left for decades.
The Egyptian activist Hossam El-Hamalawy wrote a key article in 2007, entitled Comrades and Brothers, with the byline: “Eschewing the bad blood that separates their elders, young activists from the radical Egyptian left and the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating on campus and in the streets”. Four years later, that collaboration would make possible the united protests in Tahrir Square in 2011 that unleashed the Egyptian revolution. Despite the defeat (so far) of that movement, that collaboration between the revolutionary left, the Arab Nationalist left and Islamist organisations has lessons that should be learned across the region.
Especially in Algeria, with the tragic history of the state’s dirty war in the 1990s, it is essential for left activists to see that they may have many points in common with activists inspired in political Islam, and that common struggles for democracy and social justice are possible, even necessary… alongside and as part of the building of an independent left.
Solidarity, not charity
And, finally, the circumstances of Spain’s deportation of Mohamed Abdellah hold a very important lesson for activists in Europe.
Many people have tended to see human rights work as something people can do from a position of “privilege”. Operating from countries where human rights are respected and bad things don’t happen, they can run campaigns supporting those who are less fortunate, as a sort of humanitarian or charitable act.
This case is an example of how, despite the evident differences that exist between different countries, we all face to one degree or another many of the same fundamental problems. The Spanish state, a member of the European Union, has political prisoners, and uses false accusations of terrorism to try to silence political opponents; other European states are no better.
Mohamed Abdellah found himself having to seek asylum; the same could happen to any activist that questions the status quo. If the mainstream politicians that made up the Catalan government could end up spending more than 3 years in prison for carrying out the policies on which they were elected, no social movement activity is free of risks.
That is not a reason to back down, rather it should lead us to see that, north and south, east and west, we are part of a common struggle for democracy and social justice. In the words of the Occupy movement in the USA, inspired by the Indignados movement in the Spanish state, which in turn was inspired by the “Arab spring” of 2011, we are the 99% that is fighting for our rights against the 1% that has led us to the current multifaceted worldwide disaster.
The struggles in Algeria are part of that battle, and they are important for all of us.
This is a translation and adaptation of an article in Catalan, additional reporting and editing by the Middle East Solidarity editorial team. Anzar Atrar is an activist from Kabylia living in Madrid. David Karvala is a social movement activist in Barcelona and participates in Tadamon, the Catalan sister movement of the MENA solidarity network.