Solidarity with political prisoners in Algeria – “Système, dégage!”

by Sheila Amrouche

Mass protests broke out in Algeria in February 2019, forcing the veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to stand down in April, and have continued every week since then under the slogan “Système, dégage!” (“Down with the regime”) to demand a more thorough purging of the ruling elite. During the spring and summer, the government detained a host of senior figures on corruption charges, including two former prime ministers, two former intelligence chiefs, eight ministers and several prominent businessmen. However, the government has put increasing pressure on protesters, arresting opposition leaders, muzzling the press, harassing lawyers and human rights advocates, deploying more police at demonstrations and arresting large numbers of protesters.

Arrested for carrying the Berber or Amazigh flag

Ahmed Gaid Salah, 79, the army chief of staff and deputy defense minister, has widely been considered Algeria’s new strongman. Since April he has warned of “foreign parties” seeking to “infiltrate demonstrations” and “destabilize Algeria.” On June 19th he gave a public speech in which he accused “a small minority of people who bear other flags [than the Algerian flag]” of “infiltrating the protests.” Starting June 21, security forces began large-scale arrests throughout the country, targeting marchers with Amazigh flags, a symbol of the large ethnic community of the same name, also known as Berbers. Over 100 protesters remain in custody, most in Algiers. All are under investigation for “harming the integrity of the national territory,” which carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

Samira Messouci, elected to the provincial assembly of Tizi-Ouzou, activist in the RCD (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie), arrested on the 21st June demonstration for being in possession of the Berber flag. Three other protesters were arrested with her: Aouissi Hocine Mustapha, Chalal Amokrane and Kichou El Hadi.  All four were accused of “undermining national unity”. They still remain in detention.

19 demonstrators arrested on 23rd June for carrying the Amazigh flag and “undermining national unity”. General strikes in three towns where some of the detainees came from.

Nadir Fetissi was arrested on 5th July for carrying a Berber flag at a demonstration and charged with “harming the integrity of the national territory” The prosecution demanded 10 years in prison, but he was later acquitted.

Arrested for showing a placard

On July 9th Mouaffak Serdouk, a 40-year-old supporter of Algeria’s football team, was sentenced to a year in prison for “publicly displaying a paper that can harm the national interest.” He had been deported from Egypt two weeks earlier, after Egyptian authorities arrested him in Cairo. He had stood near a stadium where the Algeria team was playing in the Africa Cup of Nations football match, carrying a sign encouraging a change in administrations in Algeria.

Arrests of political figures and attempts to silence political organisations

Louisa Hanoune, general secretary of the PT (Workers Party) since 1990, was arrested on 9 May after being summoned to the military court as a witness during the investigation of two ex-intelligence chiefs as well as Saïd Bouteflika, younger brother of the ousted president. She was charged with “conspiring against the state and the army” and held in solitary confinement before being sentenced to a fifteen year jail sentence on 24 September.

In a statement, the Workers Party called her trial a “judicial farce riddled with lies. Louisa Hanoune has been condemned in order to terrorise and try to silence all the voices that oppose those in de facto power. The same goes for Lakhdar Bouregâa, Samira Messouci, Samir Benlarbi, Foudil Moumala and dozens of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.”

On June 30th police arrested 87-year old Lakhdar Bouregaa, one of the few surviving commanders of Algeria’s war of independence, at his home in Algiers, four days after he said at a public meeting that Algeria’s army is a collection of “militias.” He is being investigated for “weakening the morale of the army,” which could lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years. He remains in prison pending completion of the investigation, which can take up to one year. Bouregaa is a founder of the opposition Socialist Forces Front party and was a political prisoner in the 1970s under President Houari Boumedienne.

On August 27th local authorities banned meetings near the city of Bejaia by the Rassemblement Action Jeunesse (RAJ), a group active in pro-democracy protests. On September 5th local authorities arrested over 20 pro-democracy and human rights activists who were planning to hold a RAJ meeting in a public square. They were freed about 3 hours later.

On August 27th the authorities ordered opposition parties to cancel an inaugural joint meeting in Algiers the next day. Seven organisations have joined as members of the Forces of the Democratic Alternative, a political alliance created to back the protesters’ call for a democratic transition.

Karim Tabbou, national coordinator of the Democratic and Social Union (UDS) was arrested on 12th September for “undermining the morale of the troops” of the army, according to the article 75 of the Penal Code. He was arrested without warrant or explanation. Tabou recently took part in a conference which called for the rejection of the upcoming presidential elections.

The activist Samir Belarbi was arrested on 17th September for “undermining territorial integrity and the national interest”. Belarbi is a well-known activist in the “Hirak” protest movement.

Attacks on independent media and journalists

Since June 12th Tout Sur l’Algérie (TSA), one of the country’s top independent news websites, has been inaccessible most of the time inside Algeria.

On August 19th Algerian authorities detained a Human Rights Watch employee, Ahmed Benchemsi, as he was observing the Friday march in Algiers. He was deported 10 days later. According to Reporters Without Borders, several foreign journalists have been deported since April.

Physical assaults on lawyers

Armed assault on lawyer Salah Dabouz in Ghardaïa by three hooded men. An advocate of human rights, Salah Dabouz has been subjected to unparalleled judicial harassment for several months, during which he went on hunger strike for a month. He was the lawyer for human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar, from Ghardaia in southern Algeria, who died on 28th May after months of imprisonment and a 50-day hunger strike.

In early September, Wassila Boughari, a lawyer and national secretary of the RCD, survived an attempted stabbing in her office.

Lawyers protest

In support of the popular movement born on February 22, the Bejaia Bar called for a general strike for Thursday September 19th across all jurisdictions under the court of justice of the region, and a march of the “black robes”.

The slogans will reflect the same demands put forward by the Hirak (movement), namely, “The release of political prisoners and prisoners of opinion”, ” Stop repression and stop the prosecution of pacifist demonstrators “,” The establishment of a real independent body to manage the transition period “and” The establishment of the rule of law, democratic and social “.

CNLD (National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees)

The CNLD is planning a national march on Friday 20th September in Algiers. All the families of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, their defense lawyers and all supporters are welcome.

Latest news

Powerful army chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Saleh has for months pushed for an election, saying it is the only way out of the standoff, and on 15th September interim president Abdelkader Ben Salah said it would take place in December. Since Bouteflika’s resignation, fewer people have attended the weekly protests on Tuesday and Fridays, but those still marching have rejected any election for now, saying there could not be a fair vote while the old guard retains power. Whether this announcement of a presidential election, and the heavier police presence at demonstrations, will quell the protests or reignite them is likely to become clear during the marches in the coming weeks.

According to the Euro-Mediterranean Solidarity Forum, the refusal to free the young protesters in Algiers arrested for carrying the Amazigh flag, while those in other cities have been freed; the arrests of Lakhdar Bouregaa, Louisa Hanoune, Samira Messouci and Karim Tabbou; the closing down of media outlets; all this is combines to show the willingness of the army to turn its back on millions of Algerians and to abort the ongoing revolution.

Repression by the police and judiciary have reached a crescendo in mid-September, with over 100 protesters incarcerated in El Harrach prison in Algiers, and the hardening of the charges against them, for example “harming the integrity of the national territory,” which carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison. The detainees include 24 arrested on the 30th weekly Friday protest since February.

The lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi said he was “very worried” by the “coldness” of the magistrates in front of these many young people taken at random by the security services during the marches. “I was very touched by this young man aged 25. When he realized that he was going to prison, he told the judge: I have cancer. My chemotherapy appointment is for September 23rd. The magistrate told him: ” Allah yechfik ” (may God heal you).These young people did nothing illegal. They march like the millions of Algerians who come out every Friday across the country.”

What you can do:

  • Send a letter of protest to the Algerian embassy in your country, calling for the release of all political prisoners and for an end to attacks on Algerian citizens’ rights to organise and speak out.
  • Put a resolution to your trade union branch calling for action in solidarity with Algerian political prisoners
  • Read more on the background to the movement here and here