September 28, 2022

Algerian dissidents: victims of repression or outlaws?

PARIS (AP) — Mohamed Benhalima looks suspicious and scared as he is led off a plane at Algiers airport, handcuffed with a security guard’s arm wrapped around him. A team from the Algerian Rapid Intervention Force then places him in their vehicle and takes him to an unknown destination.

The video was uploaded on March 24. Three days later, Algerians watched on TV as the 32-year-old confessed to his involvement with an organization authorities have listed as an Islamist terror group plotting against the Algerian government.

Once a staunch servant of his homeland as an army non-commissioned officer, Benhalima became a supporter of the Algerian pro-democracy movement, then a deserter who fled to Europe. Spain expelled him after Algeria issued an arrest warrant for him.

The scene of the confessions was made public by Algeria’s General Directorate of National Security, in what could be seen as a warning to other soldiers or citizens.

Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been imprisoned for trying to keep alive the Hirak movement which staged weekly pro-democracy protests from 2019, leading to the downfall of longtime Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The marches were banned last year by the country’s military-backed government.

The authorities then extended their sweep, linking some Hirak supporters to two groups added to Algeria’s terror list last year: the Rachad, seen as Islamist infiltrators whose leaders are in Europe, and the MAK, a separatist movement in Kabylie, homeland of the Berbers.

“For two or three years, there have been thousands of legal proceedings against activists,” said the famous lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi. “Their only mistake is that they expressed their political views on social media…and are fighting for the rule of law.”

For authorities in the gas-rich North African nation, ensuring state stability is at the heart of their actions. For human rights groups, Benhalima and others are victims of an unjust and antiquated system of governance that views dissidents, or any critical voices, as criminals. They say Algerian authorities are using national security threats to stifle freedom of expression, including among journalists, and justify arrests.

A social media campaign with the hashtag #PasUnCrime (not a crime) was launched on May 19 by dozens of non-governmental organizations against the repression of human rights.

The US State Department’s 2021 report on human rights in Algeria cited a long list of issues, including arbitrary arrests and detentions and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association. In March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on Algeria to “change course” to “guarantee the right of its people to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.

“Being a human rights activist in Algeria has become very difficult,” said Zaki Hannache, a Hirak activist who was recently released temporarily from prison. “Being an activist who refuses the system is complicated. It even means sacrifices.

Hannache, best known for tracking Hirak-related arrests, was arrested and jailed in February on a series of charges, including advocating for terrorist acts.

Benhalima’s alleged confession reflects the combination of evils that Algeria claims to face. He said he was in love with Rachad and in touch with his London-based leader and his two brothers. The official APS news agency said Benhalima had confirmed “the involvement of the terrorist organization Rachad in despicable plans aimed at the stability of Algeria and its institutions by exploiting a misguided youth”.

Rachad’s website claimed the police video showed a “hostage” forced to confess during a security service propaganda exercise.

Rachad’s true aims are unclear, but he is a key target of Algerian repression. In December, Rachad said he filed a complaint with a UN special rapporteur regarding the group’s “arbitrary” classification as a terrorist organization and asked UN authorities to urge Algeria to cease its “illegal practices”.

Spain expelled Benhalima based on national security interests and activities “likely to harm Spain’s relations with other countries”, according to Amnesty International. Spain expelled another deserter, Mohamed Abdellah, a dissident gendarme, to Algeria last August. Amnesty International has described him as a whistleblower.

Spain has a particular interest in remaining on good terms with Algeria, which provides a large part of its gas needs.

According to the National Committee for the Freedom of Detainees, some 300 people are behind bars in Algeria for their political opinions. Up to 70 people were provisionally released at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but others have since been arrested.

In an emblematic case for Algerian journalists, the boss of Radio M and the online news site Algérie Emergente, Ihsane El-Kadi, faces three years in prison with a five-year ban on working for having undermined the national unity, among others. things. He had aroused the ire of a former Minister of Communication with a platform pleading for the protest movement Hirak not to be divided on Rachad. The verdict fell next week.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune recently launched an ill-defined initiative dubbed “outstretched hands”, described as an “internal front” to promote dialogue in all sectors of society. Army chief Said Chengriha has suggested in several speeches that it is also to counter perceived enemies of Algeria. The initiative comes ahead of July 5 celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, which was won after a brutal seven-year war.

“No one can refuse” to participate in this initiative, declared Abou El Fadl Baadji, secretary general of the National Liberation Front, once Algeria’s only political party. He was among the officials Tebboune recently met about the matter. People “await with suspense the content of this initiative… but we are for this idea, even before knowing the details”.

Benhalima awaits the verdict of his appeal against a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted in absentia of invasion of privacy and attacks on state interests, related to his online publications on the Algerian army, including including confidential information about senior officers.

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Lotfi Bouchouchi in Algiers, Algeria, contributed.