Citizens’ groups under threat

Citizens’ groups under threat

Algeria Interface, 09.02.2001,

Citizens’ groups and charities in Algeria face increasingly repressive Kafkaesque bureaucracy and police intimidation.

Algiers, 09/02/01 – Citizens’ groups and charities that address social and human rights issues in Algeria face Kafkaesque bureaucracy and police intimidation that is threatening to grow even more repressive.

Yet the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to organise while legislation drafted in 1990 in the heady days of nascent pluralism was designed to ease bureaucratic procedure for founding « associations ».

« Association » is a blanket-term covering independent organisations ranging from professional bodies, clubs and societies and religious organisations to groups that promote protection of the environmental, community and social concerns, and human rights.

Algerian law recognises 21 kinds of citizens’ associations and after the 1990 legislation came into effect they mushroomed: 823 nationally- and 53,743 locally-based groups came into being, according to Interior Ministry figures.

Although the figures make good reading, they belie the reality on the ground. Oppressive bureaucracy and close surveillance have almost squeezed independent citizens’ groups out of existence.

Citizens’ groups outlawed
The state does grants subsidies that help foster « democratic openness » and « consolidate civil society ». But the funds go into the coffers of puppet organisations the authorities use to control social action groups and charity work and use them to show its commitment to political well-being and social welfare.

Mystery shrouds grant entitlements. Nationally-based charities, for example, are entitled to support from NGOs and foreign organisations. However, only a handful, whose names the Interior Ministry keeps quiet, ever get it.

What’s more, since the state of emergency was enforced in 1992 several charities have been outlawed, particularly human rights and community groups and trades unions. The Algerian Human Rights League and a youth group called Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse have been banned dozens of time since 1995.

Many nationally and locally based groups whose memberships swelled initially burgeoned have now been reduced to skeleton structures that struggle to survive the shortage of funds and bureaucratic harassment.

Kafkaesque procedures
Under the terms of the 1990 legislation governing « associations », anyone wanting to create one has first to register with the Interior Ministry or with the local government office. The registration is recorded and a receipt is handed over. If, a certain time, the application has not been refused the association is automatically authorised.

However, when the 1990 law came into force police stations set up offices that kept a close eye on political and community organisations. As a result, people seen as activists are regularly intimidated even before they get around to registering their « association ».

The ambiguously worded provisions of article 7 of the act in effect allow the authorities to break their own law. They refuse to record registrations, which in turn prevents groups from applying for approval.

It is a form of blackmail by which local and central government authorities force citizens’ groups to change their statutes and aims. Even then the police summon the would-be founder members one by one to vet them. Then, and only then, will their application be registered.

In practice, therefore, government offices do not even have to bother replying to new organisations that apply for authorisation. Some just see their application rejected, while others obtain their registration receipt only after traipsing back and forth between local authorities and the Interior Ministry for years on end.

SOMOUD, an organisation representing the relatives of terrorist victims, and the National Association of the Families of Missing People submitted application in 1998. Since then not only have they not been approved, they have not even secured registration receipts.

A new draft of legislation governing associations is waiting in the wings, pending which the Interior Ministry has unofficially blocked the granting of any new authorisations for associations.

Ministry official are also considering whether to compel existing associations to comply with the new law on pain of prosecution or dissolving them.

On February 12 and 13 talks are due to take place between Algeria and the European Union. They are the follow-up of the Barcelona Conference Agreements of 1995. Algeria’s citizens’ groups will be anxiously hoping trade agreements will be made conditional on respect for basic human rights compatible with the rule of law, e.g. individual and collective freedom.

However the Tunisian precedent clearly shows that a state’s agreement to respect such conditions is no guarantee it will do so.

Abdelhaq Illeli