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Algeria increases pressure on local human rights activists

February 1, 2023

In Algeria, journalists and human rights activists are being jailed in larger numbers. Most recently a major human rights groups was dissolved by court order, but under questionable circumstances.

A journalist is arrested during a demonstration in Algiers.
A journalist is arrested during a demonstration in Algiers in 2019Image: Fateh Gudoum/picture alliance/AP Photo

Local activists heard the bad news indirectly, via social media. In late January, members of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, or LADDH, read posts on Facebook about a decision issued by a court in the Algerian capital, Algiers, that basically ordered the disbanding of the organization.

"A judgment for the dissolution ofLADDH, dated September 28, 2022, is circulating on social media yet LADDH has not even been informed about it," the organization wrote, alongside a post showing the original document featuring the court's decision.

Apparently, there was a trial in June last year but nobody told the LADDH about it or allowed it to defend itself, the authors of the Facebook post said.

The LADDH, founded in 1985 and one of themost active human rights groups in Algeria, was accused of "suspicious activities" as well as of not following rules about how such organizations should be administered. The court said that the organization shouldn't exist because senior members had left the country and that its finances were not transparent enough.

But as Said Salhi, deputy director of the LADDH, tweeted this week, this is false. The heads of the organization remain in Algeria even though Salhi himself fled to Belgium with his family in June last year because he feared persecution.

"The state resents us for doing the work that all human rights organizations around the world do," Salhi told DW. "We document abuses and monitor the mechanisms of power. That is why our work has been banned. That is why many of our activists are called 'terrorists'."

Salhi believes the document featuring the court's decision was only published in January because of a visit by US Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Michele Sison. She travelled to Algeria and Morocco between January 21 and 26 to "discuss shared multilateral priorities across the UN system, including the importance of human rights as Morocco and Algeria join the UN Human Rights Council."

The dissolution of the LADDH was supposed to send a clear message to the US diplomat, Salhi argued: "That she no longer has a contact person in LADDH."

Inquiries on the matter to the Algerian government and the Algerian embassy in Berlin had not been answered by the time of writing.

International criticism

Several international human rights organizations based in France and Switzerland criticized the Algerian government's move. The World Organization against Torture, the International Federation for Human Rights and the League of Human Rights noted that the situation for human rights defenders in Algeria was deteriorating and that it was "more worrying than ever."

"All the facts … attest to a permanent deterioration and manifest violations of fundamental rights and freedoms," they said in a joint statement.

Inside the headquarters of the local branch of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights.
Nowhere to go? Headquarters of the the Algerian League for the Defense of Human RightsImage: Tizi Ouzou/dpa/picture alliance

 There is a lot of repression through legal means going in in Algeria, confirmed Maria Josua, a researcher based at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, or GIGA, in Hamburg. 

"These court rulings often have no real legal basis and draw on flimsy and vague justifications, like threats to the unity or stability of the state," Josua told DW. "Many activists have been arrested because of laws like this."

"The LADDH wasn't even told that any legal action was being taken against them. They had no opportunity to defend themselves, or even learn more about the ruling," she explained.

Keeping something like this secret indicates that the Algerian state knows that this is a questionable case, Josua concluded. "But the fact that they're still invoking the law, also means they're trying to preserve some semblance of legality," she added.

It is not only human rights activists coming under pressure in Algeria. In their joint letter, the three human rights organizations also criticized the imprisonment of the prominent local journalist Ihsane El-Kadi. 

A screen shot of imprisoned journalist Ihsane El-Kadi's Twitter account
A screen shot of imprisoned journalist Ihsane El-Kadi's Twitter accountImage: twitter.com/elkadiihsane

El-Kadi was arrested in December last year and his website and radio were shut down after he was accused of spreading propaganda for foreign entities and illegally collecting donations, thereby endangering "state security."

El-Kadi's outlets, Maghreb Emergent and Webradio, were often critical of the Algerian government. El-Kadi had frequently said he doubted the success of the government's anti-corruption efforts for example. For this, he could face a prison sentence of up to seven years, his lawyer told local media. 

Unpopular authorities

The government's stance has hardened increasingly since 2019, when the pro-democracy Hirak ("hirak" means movement in Arabic) protest movement was formed. Initially it opposed a further candidacy by  Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the then-president who has since died.

Bouteflika resigned from office in April 2019 as a result of the protests. But even after that, the Hirak movement continued to air its grievances, with complaints about issues such as state corruption. 

Police officers block the road as Algerian anti-government protesters take the streets of the capital Algiers within "Hirak" pro-democracy movement demonstrations in Algeria on March 1, 2021.
TheHirak movement launched huge weekly marches demanding political reform in 2019Image: Mousaab Rouibi/AA/picture alliance

"Right now, it is very clear that the government is not particularly popular," said Josua. "That's why it's trying to hold on through repression."

But she doesn't think this will help in the long term: "There is considerable resentment among the population."

Increasing repression has already affected many activists from LADDH, Salhi said.

"Around a dozen people have been detained on serious charges, especially for things like alleged terrorism," he told DW. "Some have already served many months in detention. Others have gone into exile. That is why this government wants to prevent LADDH from being a witness to such repression."

This article was translated from German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East