by Nadia Addezio (Confronti Editorial Staff)
Freedom of expression and demonstration have been severely repressed in Algeria for more than a year. February 22 marks the third anniversary of the birth of Hirak. But in the North African country we are witnessing the worrying and daily growth of opinion prisoners, members of the “movement” for freedom and democracy.
“The government’s goal is to stop Hirak, stop the movement, the hope for change,” says with conviction Mehdi Dahak, an Algerian sports journalist who is committed to spreading the stories of opinion inmates.
In Algeria, the Covid-19 pandemic was the pretext to hinder Hirak, the movement that since February 22, 2019 had crowded the streets peacefully asking for a “civil and non-military state,” a “free and democratic Algeria,” sovereignty popular, the independent judiciary. Thanks to his mobilization, President Bouteflika had not been elected to the fifth term and in the presidential elections of December 2019 — where five former members of the old regime presented themselves as candidates — he had opposed the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, which took place with less than 40% of turnout and with 58% of the votes. Although Tebboune had stated in the aftermath of his election that he wanted to “lend a hand to Hirak,” every request was rejected: the reform of the Constitution of November 2020 excluded civil society, which therefore refused to participate in the votes (just 23.7%); the military forces still represent the de facto political establishment; freedoms of expression and demonstration are repressed.
A DEMOCRACY IN TRANSITION OR BLOCKED?
How then to define Algeria? Is it a democracy, an illiberal regime or a dictatorship? According to Yahia Zoubir, Professor of International Relations and Research Director in Geopolitics at the Kedge Business School, “Algeria is a country in a kind of transition from one regime to another. Perhaps it can be called an illiberal or semi-authoritarian democracy because many freedoms are granted, such as freedom of the press – even if some journalists are arrested for one reason or another – but it is not a system like that of Ben Ali’s Tunisia or of Gaddafi in Libya […].” Mouloud Boumghar, Professor of Public Law at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne, specializing in international human rights law, argues that “the authorities want to show and promote the country’s image as a democracy on the basis that: 1. There are elections. But if you look closer, they are not free; 2. There was recently the reform of the Constitution but for the referendum the citizens did not vote en masse, thus indicating a significant lack of legitimacy of the institutions; 3. In the Constitution there are “liberal aspects” such as freedom of association or freedom of expression, but in practice these freedoms are not guaranteed”. Professor Boumghar points out how, in his opinion, there has been “A change in the nature of repression and of the regime, which becomes more and more authoritarian because it no longer tolerates autonomous spaces (in society) that are not under its control. The scale of repression is higher and more intense and perhaps it means that the nature of the regime is changing because it is becoming more and more authoritarian… not to mention dictatorship […].”
THE PROTEST IN LOCKDOWN
During the closures forced by the health emergency, the only means available to express oneself were social media. After these passed under the control of the government authorities to identify those who spread “sensitive” content to the government, the further “squeeze” came last May, when the interior minister requested to present a permit in which the organizers were reported and start and end times of the events. A tendentious decision given that Hirak has never had a leader, a specific organizer, but has always been a mass movement.
“When the health situation began to improve and the people of Hirak wanted to protest again, the government continued on its agenda to keep people at home. […] Since May, no one has been able to take to the streets anymore. Before the students demonstrated on Tuesdays and all the others on Fridays, now no one can speak without being threatened with being imprisoned, “says the French journalist of Algerian origin Nadia Salem.
Salem is among the representatives of Free Algeria, a coordination of collectives made up of Algerians from the diaspora who reside in various countries around the world. On a Friday every two weeks she organizes meetings to discuss the problems of Algeria live on Facebook in collaboration with Algerian Detainees, a collective of Algerian journalists that collects information and disseminates the stories of opinion inmates, AlternaTv and Radio Galere Marseille. The common intent is “to promote true democracy and the rule of law in Algeria” and they are pursuing it with the meeting session “Un vendredi pour l’Algérie“. In the last period, the worrying growth in the number of opinion prisoners has been discussed above all: activists, journalists, politicians, members and supporters of Hirak in prison for having published a post or written a critical article of the government. Known was the case of Khaled Drareni, correspondent from Algiers for the French broadcaster Tv5Monde, journalist for RadioM, representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and activist Amnesty International. He was arrested on March 29, 2020 for documenting Hirak’s protests on charges of “inciting an unarmed rally” and “threatening national unity”, and released in February 2021, before his sentence expired thanks to “Measures of clemency decreed by Abdelmadjid Tebboune.” The European Parliament – already expressed the previous year – had requested in November 2020 with the European Parliament Resolution on the deterioration of the human rights situation in Algeria, in particular the case of the journalist Khaled Drareni European Parliament resolution on the deteriorating situation of human rights in Algeria, in particular the case of journalist Khaled Drareni, the immediate release of the journalist and other activists. Drareni, like many, is still under judicial control and awaiting the verdict of the appeal process.
INMATES OPINION AND THE HUNGER STRIKE
Since January 28, 40 (or perhaps more) prisoners of conscience have been on hunger strike in the El Harrach prison, in the province of Algiers, in protest against false accusations of terrorism. Among the names stands out that of Mohamed Tadjadit, the “poet of the revolution” who recited his poems during the Hirak demonstrations. In response, the prison administration had some strikers transferred to other detention centers, instead placing those remaining in El Harrach in solitary confinement cells. A physical and psychological pressure, this, which aims to stop the strike and to further punish the inmates already unjustly imprisoned. Meanwhile, the prosecutor denied that a hunger strike was in progress, the NGO Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said.
According to reports from Algerian Detainees, to date there are 291 prisoners of opinion in pre-trial detention. The Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH) denounces as many as 333 prisoners of conscience and politicians. The Comité National pour la Libération des Détenus (CNLD), the Algerian association for the liberation of political and opinion prisoners, updates its Facebook page every day, disseminating faces, names, motifs, places of imprisonment and the status of the trial, dividing the inmates for wilaya (province).
CRIMINAL, POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC PRESSURE
The exponential increase in the number of prisoners of opinion without trial can be traced back to the changes made to the Criminal Code by presidential ordinance. That is: the introduction of Article 87bis which extends the crime of terrorism, including “any act aimed at the security of the State, national unity, stability and the normal functioning of institutions […]”; the issuing of a executive decree, implementing the aforementioned article, which provides the procedures for registration and cancellation from the national list of persons and entities accused of terrorism; the law 20-06 which — citing the aforementioned Resolution—“arbitrarily criminalizes the dissemination of “fake news,” exposing every newspaper article (and therefore the author) considered controversial to the accusation of spreading false news. Rabah Karèche, journalist of the Algerian daily Liberté, imprisoned and released last October, is one example.
The spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, last May at a press conference on Algeria showed his concern about the violation of the freedoms of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and participation in the country, inviting the authorities “to review the Criminal Code and the repressive laws […]”. Human Rights Watch, an international human rights NGO, in June 2021 invited the States participating in the 47th session of the Human Rights Council to condemn the repression of some fundamental freedoms in Algeria in a joint letter.
Journalists are not only under legal and political pressure. Mehdi Dahak, a member of Algerian Detainees, explains that “The government controls public advertisements, a resource for newspapers. If you are against the government, you don’t get advertisements. The government can also pressure some private companies that want to advertise in independent newspapers. It’s a way of saying “Be careful!” Sometimes you have to stand on the side of the government to survive. Economic pressure is the first and real pressure that journalism undergoes.”
The World Press Freedom Index (2021) compiled by Reporters Without Borders places Algeria in 146th place out of 180 countries for freedom of the press.
Animated video by Amnesty International Algérie explaining the condition of opinion prisoners and why they are arbitrarily in jail
THE END OF THE HIRAK… AND WHAT BEGINS NOW?
The country is going through various crises: from social to political, from economic to geopolitical, the latter dictated by the insecurity in the states with which it borders. The objectives of the Algerian authorities could be manifold. Yahia Zoubir explains that “When Hirak began to have different and radical forces within it [MAK e Rachad], the government decided to stop it. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m saying what they think is logical. Algeria is trying to preserve national security while trying to make reforms, but not too big to create instability. If you look closely, there is a change taking place. But unfortunately it is happening at a time when geopolitical changes are taking place ».
The question of what to prefer between the guarantee of stability and respect for human rights remains unsolved. Certainly, incarcerations on false charges are of concern. As in the case of Fethi Ghares, national coordinator of the Democratic and Social Movement (MDS) and leading figure of Hirak, sentenced on January 9 to two years in prison for “assaulting the person of the President of the Republic, insulting a legal person , dissemination of publications that could harm the national interest, dissemination of information that could undermine public order.” The arrest caused “a wave of indignation,” reported the Algerian newspaper El Watan.
Hirak represented the turning point for the Algerian people. Three years after its birth, it is now the victim of a growing and strategic weakening. Dahak, with resignation and lucidity, states that “Maybe there will be another movement, but Hirak is dead. After more than a year of hiatus, it’s over. Perhaps the new generations will be able to create new movements in the coming years … this is the hope. I am very pessimistic. […] Young people are very enthusiastic but there is no perspective, there is no alternative. This is the real problem of Hirak. Everyone says “We want a change” but no one says “How.” Mouloud Boumghar asserts that he does not have an optimistic view «because I see a mix of fear, disillusionment and anger. I hope, even if it is very difficult, that people continue to peacefully claim their rights. This is extremely important. […] Considering people as enemies is not a good thing for the country.” With a reassuring smile and conviction, Nadia Salem comments: “I imagine that Algeria will one day be a democracy, no doubt about that. When I go to Algeria I see many extraordinary young people who want their country to be free, they want to live like all other young people in the world. They [the government authorities] will not stop the revolution. Nobody will steal this revolution from young people. Today there is the internet, social networks … and young Algerians are aware of what is happening outside their country, they know what democracy is and they will do everything they can to achieve it.”
Ph. Marche Printemps berbère Hirak Mtl avril 2021, masque et distanciation durant la pandémie Covid-19 © Great 11 from Wikimedia Commons
Algeria is the largest country on the African continent and the Arab world by territorial extension. It has almost 44 million inhabitants. Located in North Africa, it borders the Mediterranean Sea and Tunisia (northeast) to the north, Libya to the east, Niger to the southeast, Mauritania and Mali to the southwest and Morocco to the west. It gained independence from the French occupation in 1962 after one hundred and fifteen years of colonization (1847) with the bloody Algerian War. Semi-presidential republic, it is governed continuously by the National Liberation Front (FLN), a political party that had the merit of leading Algeria towards decolonization, currently considered a basin of corruption and an obstacle to democracy. The last known exponent was Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019). His candidacy for the fifth term determined the beginning of Hirak (February 2019), literally "movement", formed by people of all ages who began to take to the streets every Friday with the aim of peacefully promoting active participation in political life and radical reform of the country's constitutional structure.