Thousands of people gather to stage a demonstration on the second anniversary of Hirak movement in Algiers on March 19, 2021. (Photo by Mousaab Rouibi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Explainers

Algeria’s Multipronged Crackdown on the Hirak

Hirak protests re-emerged in February, on the movement’s second anniversary after months of relative quiet enforced by a coronavirus pandemic ban on demonstrations and large gatherings. Protests are widespread across the country and include various groups including activists, students, minors, civil servants, and those in the diaspora. These renewed Hirak demonstrations have been met with repressive tactics by Algerian security services and backed by strict new laws.

Protests that started in 2019 resulted in the resignation of President Bouteflika and new presidential elections, also leading to Penal Code Amendments and the arrest of Hirak participants. Despite the lockdown, sporadic protests calling for the release of those detained, arrested, and prosecuted during the Hirak continued. Coinciding with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the Hirak’s second anniversary President Abdelmajid Tebboune has released about 20,000 prisoners. However, only 60 of those pardons were Hirak participants, and the terms of release are provisional and have been called arbitrary by some Algerian lawyers, because there has been no clear statement regarding the withdrawal of charges. More recently on Algeria’s Independence Day on July 5, an additional 101 Hirak participants were released from prison in response to pressure from the ongoing movement. 

Abuses by authorities

Hirak protests, referred to as the “revolution of smiles,” have been peaceful since initial demonstrations in 2019. Authorities have used detention, arrest, and prosecution to undermine the Hirak and silence prominent activists and journalists. This practice has continued during the renewed protests in 2021, with protesters removed from the street by authorities daily. 

Numerous detainees have spoken out about torture, violence, and sexual abuse inflicted upon them while in police custody—practices that have been used since the first wave of the Hirak movement in 2019. Walid Nekkiche, who was arrested in November 2019 at a student protest later testified that while in pre-trial detention, he was disappeared, tortured, sexually assaulted, and coerced into a confession by members of the Algerian military and security services. His statement elicited strong reactions from civil society and media, prompting the government to investigate the allegations. However, Nekkiche has stated that the investigation has not been pursued and that he has been approached by emissaries attempting to persuade him to withdraw his complaint.

Other Hirak protesters taken into custody during the 2021 wave of demonstrations have come forward about the physical and sexual abuse inflicted by authorities. Saïd Chetouane, a minor detained by police for participating in a demonstration, said that police had physically and sexually abused him. Similar to Nekkiche, an investigation was launched after widespread condemnation. 

However, that ensuing investigation accused Saïd of orchestrating his own sexual abuse and placed him in a child protection center. The prosecutor leading the investigation also arrested two activists—Tadjadit Mohamed and Soheib Debaghi—who filmed Saïd’s initial allegations of police abuse immediately after his release from police custody.  

Another minor, Ayoub Chaetou, was sentenced for his participation in Hirak and during his detention his father claimed that he had been physically and sexually abused. These practices have been called “a bid to intimidate pro-democracy demonstrators,” and abuses against minors has been seen as a tactic to discourage youth participation in politics. Journalists covering protests have also been subjected to alleged of sexual and physical violations. Kaddour Chouicha, the President of Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (LADDH), a prominent NGO reporting on the Hirak and defending human rights in the country in general, said he was strangled while in detention and at least sixteen other journalists and students have reported abuse while in police custody. 

Although violations against Hirak protesters have generally occurred inside police and detention facilities, police presence and violent tactics have recently increased against demonstrators on the streets. During the 114th student protest this past April, hundreds of police dispersed, arrested, and prevented students from marching in Algiers for the first time since the resumption of Hirak after the pandemic. The trend continued over the following two weeks, during the 115th general protests, the Algerian Civil Protection Officers’ protests, where participants were tear-gassed and then fired from their government positions, and during the 115th student protest, where dozens more students were arrested. Tactics escalated further during the 115th general protests with reports of violent dispersal of protests across Algeria. In addition to an increasingly violent response by authorities, detained protesters have also been required to sign a document prior to release, affirming that they will cease participation in marches, not speak to the media, and that if caught protesting again, they acknowledge that they would be arrested and detained indefinitely. 

Algerians in the diaspora protested in Geneva during the 47th Human Rights Council in solidarity with violations against Hirak protesters by authorities. They demanded the attention of the United Nations regarding the declining human rights situation in Algeria, specifically during Hirak protests and the treatment of prisoners of conscience. A number of prominent international human rights organizations have also published open letters and joint statements to the 47th Human Rights Council, addressing similar concerns about the situation in Algeria.  

These violent and repressive measures are in violation of Article 39 of  the constitutional amendments passed by referendum in 2020, which states that torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is punishable by law. Additionally, Article 40 states that no person shall be arrested, detained, or prosecuted for reasons other than those provided by the law and that arbitrary detention is punishable and used only as an exceptional measure.

Arrests and prosecutions

Algerian authorities have been able to take full advantage of the legal system to justify the arrest and prosecution of Hirak participants. Recent legal revisions, such as a constitutional amendments, amendments to the Penal Code, the Coronavirus Pandemic Executive Decree, and legally binding statements made by the Ministry of Interior have further strengthened the tools used in the crackdown. Civil society has criticized these amendments due to the exclusionary process used to pass the laws and the vague text used to justify crackdowns on civic space, the army’s political role, and the executive authorities’ power. Most recently, in May the Minister of Interior released a statement reaffirming protest organizers’ accountability if marches deviated from planned routes and slogans. LADDH condemned the “authoritarian decision,” saying it would open the door for authorities to outlaw student marches, ban and criminalize peaceful protests, and legalize additional arrests and arbitrary detentions. 

Despite these amendments over the past year and a half, authorities have also continued to use legislation that predates the Hirak that violates fundamental rights and freedoms, resorting to charges such as terrorism, foreign funding, propagating fake news, and illegal gathering. Front Line Defenders reported that legislative attacks are increasing against those engaged with the Hirak pro-democracy movement, which contributes to shrinking civic space in the country. Approximately 80 Hirak participants remain in jail with pending charges and convictions, even more have been released provisionally or were required to pay a fine based on vague interpretations of new and old laws. 

National unity”

New Algerian legislation has invoked vague phrasing referring to the undermining, attacking, or harming of national unity or territory. The implementation of two 2020 laws, the Law on Association (12-06) and the Coronavirus Executive Decree, rely heavily on these phrases to justify the detention, arrest, and prosecution of activists and journalists. Karim Tabbou, an opposition party leader, has been prosecuted by the Algerian government for his political activities and was most recently arrested under the jurisdiction of Article 144bis of law 12-06 which “prohibits undermining national unity or offending public bodies” after he publicly heckled a government official. A United Nations Working Group has published an opinion stating that they consider Karim Tabbou’s detention arbitrary. Article 95bis of law 12-06, which prohibits the use of outside funds to carry out acts that undermine the security of the state and national unity, was used against Mansouri Ahmed, an activist associated with the Rachad Political Movement, accused of channeling money from Rachad members abroad to finance civil society activities within Algeria. Journalists Abdelkrim Zeghileche and Khaled Drareni have also been charged under Article 79 of 12-06 law for undermining the integrity of the national territory. 

Freedom of speech

Article 52 of the amended constitution guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, and peaceful demonstration. However, prior to the referendum’s implementation, laws 12-06 and 20-05 carved out exceptions to these rights. Articles under law 12-06 have been used to silence criticism of the government and its narrative on Islam. Activist Bilal Chache was prosecuted for committing acts which “weaken the morale of the army” as outlined in Article 75 of this law. Novelist Anouar Rahmani wrote a Facebook post critical of President Tebboune causing him to be charged with violating Article 146, which prohibits speech that offends public bodies. Professor Said Djabelkheir made comments on Facebook about Islam and was charged under Article 144bis2 of 12-06, which prohibits offenses and offensive speech against Islam.

Law 20-05 which prohibits discrimination and hate speech has also been used to curb freedom of speech. CIHRS suggests that an overly broad and abusive interpretation of “incitation to discrimination and hatred” can repress fundamental freedoms. Journalist Abdelhakim Setouane was tried under this law for the publication of malicious information.

In August, President Abdelmajid Tebboune responded to accusations of the state’s crackdown on freedom of speech, claiming that there are no prisoners of conscience but rather “prisoners of insult” that are under Algerian legal jurisdiction.

Fake news

Restrictions to freedom of speech have advanced to include stricter media and “fake news” laws. This recent development began under the Coronavirus Executive Decree, which “weaponized the pandemic” by censoring and blocking Algerian media websites for violating national unity. This decree led to the banning of at least ten websites that had facilitated the Hirak’s move from the streets to online spaces during the pandemic. 

Article 196bis in 12-06 Law on Associations has been used to prosecute Rabah Karèche, a journalist covering the Hirak in the state of Tamanrasset. The article says that any organization or individual that propagates fake news can be held accountable through prison sentences and fines. The Algerian government expanded these restrictions on the media six months later in the Decree Governing the Electronic Press 20-332, which requires media directors be without convictions of crimes related to discrimination or defamation. Limits to freedom of press was reaffirmed in Article 54 of the revised constitution, stating that freedom of press must also be exercised with respect of the “fundamental religious and cultural values of the nation.”

Illegal gatherings

The Algerian government has taken steps to restrict civil societies’ organization during Hirak demonstrations. The introduction of the Law on Association (12-06) prevents civil society organizations from registering if they “violate national unity” and also stipulates that active members of non-registered associations can be sentenced to prison for up to six months.

The Public Demonstrations Act was also amended in 2020, making some laws exceptionally more restrictive to target participants in the Hirak. Toufik Hassani, a former policeman and founder of Youth Action Rally Hakim Addad were charged for violating Article 97, which prohibits the incitement of an “armed” gathering. Amir DZ, an activist in the diaspora, was convicted in absentia by an Algerian court under Article 100 which prohibits inciting an unarmed gathering that would breach public calm. Article 97 of these amendments also justifies the use of force by security forces against these gatherings.

Terrorism and foreign funding

The Algerian government has a history of prosecuting opposition groups—both domestically and in the diaspora—under anti-terrorism and foreign funding laws. Recent arrests and prosecutions against civil society have been justified by Article 87 of Law 06-23 relating to terrorism and its financing, considered by some to be overly broad allowing for prosecution of protected acts. Law No. 05-01 also justifies the government’s role in preventing and countering money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Recent amendments to Law of Association 12-06, such as Article 95, has imposed new restrictions on civil society organizations and other associations’ access to foreign funding.

Four members of the Rachad Political Movement residing abroad were charged with belonging to and funding a terrorist group. Media organization SOS Bab El Oued was accused of accepting funds from a foreign country and subsequently shut down. Members of LADDH, Said Budour, Kaddour Chouicha, and his wife Jamila Loulik were also accused of enlisting in a terrorist organization after being arrested for participating in a 2020 demonstration.

Revoking nationality

The Algerian government has used Law 18-23 to revoke the nationality of Algerians convicted of terrorism to target civil society. However, a new draft amendment to Law 70-86 was introduced in March 2021 by Algerian Minister of Justice Belkacem Zeghmati, who proposed that the nationality of diaspora Hirak activists could be revoked if state interests or national unity are intentionally undermined. The draft law was withdrawn a few weeks later due to widespread criticism from civil society organizations, concerned the law would be used to silence dissidents. 

Judicial battles

Changes to the legal system have not been without opposition. The Collective of Lawyers for Prisoners of Conscience have worked at “defending civil society unjustly persecuted in courts, fighting behind the scenes in court” despite the acceleration of prosecutions. Algerian lawyers have also maintained that recent changes to laws have been used to prevent them from arguing the constitutionality of practices by security forces. Additionally, judicial figures have spoken out against the criminalization of fundamental freedoms. Judge Saad Eddine Merzouk was summoned for supporting Hirak and standing up to the Minister of Justice while Deputy Prosecutor Mohamed Belhadi was sanctioned for questioning the charges and detention of demonstrators. The National Union of Algerian Magistrates called these repercussions retaliatory against the prosecutor’s remarks.

Retaliation against lawyers and other legal professionals who challenge Algerian authorities has continued to worsen, resulting in the intimidation and disbarment of about a dozen Algerians. Additionally, the presidential ordinance issued in June punishes lawyers for sharing information about ongoing legal cases. 

Conclusion

In attempting to undermine the Hirak protests, Algerian authorities have continued to use violent tactics, detention, arrests, and prosecutionbacked by both new legal measures and preexisting legal frameworks. The Hirak has also been stalled multiple times by the COVID-19 pandemic and as of July 22, Hirak protesters’ efforts have once again been paused by the worsening crisis.