Escalation in « political » arrests
Algeria Interface, May 25, 2002
As arrests of demonstrators, protesters and human rights activists vague continue to swell, there are growing fears of an onslaught on civil liberties in Algeria.
Algiers, 25/05/02 – There are today between 700 and 800 people in Algeria’s prisons for exercising their democratic right to protest according to Mustapha Bouchachi, a lawyer and member of the independent rights watchdog, the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH).
Mr Bouchachi said the figure included protesters arrested nationwide in recent months in disturbances similar to the rioting that has affected Kabylia for the last year.
He was speaking in an Algiers court at the trial of 19 students and two rights campaigners arrested after creating a disturbance when President Bouteflika visited the nearby University Bouzareah on May 18th.
The growing number of what are effectively « political » detainees is a sign of the rapid erosion of civil and personal freedoms in Algerian in the wake of the Islamist insurrection. For months now, « rioters » in Kabylia and, more recently the eastern towns of Khenchela and Aïn-Fakroun, have been the target of sweeping arrests.
Rights campaigners in firing line
Following the riots in prisons across Algeria, President Bouteflika amnestied some 8,000 prisoners but, as interior minister Nourredine Zerhouni pointed out, they were « common criminals ». The implication being that others – the many protesters arrested – are « politicals ».
Although the authorities claim most arrests are for in flagrante delicto offences, they usually take place in the margins of protests. They are frequently arbitrary and penalties are harsh, often as much as two years in prison.
The wave of repression has not stopped there.
In late March, local leaders of the Kabyle protest movement were arrested on such « political » charges as « constitution of a non-recognised movement » or « illegal distribution of pamphlets ».
The heavy hand of the political police, for years monopolised by the Islamist insurrection, can again be seen in the way in which civil protest is put down.
Professor Kouider Chouicha, leader of university lecturers’ union, the CNES, was arrested in a street in the western city of Oran and detained for several hours by the police.
Ali Mazouzi, a local leader of the Kabyle civil protest movement in the provincial capital of Tizi Ouzou, was brutally arrested a month ago in Algiers by some 20 plainclothes police. Students arrested after demonstrating at the university of Bouzareah in mid-May were actually picked up one day later on the basis of intelligence files kept on them.
The Tunisian model
But the harshest treatment in the escalating clampdown is meted out to human rights campaigners. Generally tolerated until about one year ago, they are back in the firing line.
Khelil Abderrahamane of the LADDH and head of SOS-Disparus which campaigns for the truth on Algeria’s thousands of missing persons, was arrested together with a friend, Sid Ahmed Mourad, outside the University of Bouzareah when they arrived at the request of the students to monitor arrests.
In a press release the LADDH has denounced « the persecution of the human rights campaigners », while Ahmed Djedaï of the opposition party, Socialist Forces Front (FFS) fears « political party activists and journalists are set to the next targets in the wave of arrests ». Each week sees rising numbers of journalists and editors brought before magistrates.
Human rights and civil liberties are clearly back at the top of the political agenda – pending the general elections of May 30th and the authorities have moved smartly to stem swelling discontent.
In April a presidential decree switched national intelligence and security issues from the defence ministry and its notorious Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) to the interior ministry. The aim of the reform is to centralise the domestic intelligence services along similar lines to Tunisia’s sinister « Dakhilia », which conducts political and civil repression with an iron hand.
El Kadi Ihsane