Amnesty International: Human rights lawyers threatened with imprisonment on trumped-up charges


Public Statement

AI Index: MDE 28/018/2006 (Public)
News Service No: 248
23 September 2006

Embargo Date: 23 September 2006 00:01 GMT

Algeria: Human rights lawyers threatened with imprisonment on trumped-up charges

Amnesty International is concerned that two lawyers who are due to appear in an Algiers court on Monday may face imprisonment because of their human rights work. Amnesty International’s information strongly indicates that trumped-up charges have been brought against lawyers Hassiba Boumerdesi and Amine Sidhoum in an attempt to intimidate them and deter them from carrying out human rights work. Amnesty International therefore believes that the lawyers are being subjected to judicial harassment and that the charges should be dropped.

Hassiba Boumerdesi and Amine Sidhoum have been charged with violating laws governing the organization and security of prisons, based on allegations by the prison authorities that they had passed items to their clients in detention without authorization. The charges carry prison terms of up to five years’ imprisonment. According to the law regulating the legal profession, the authorities may also request that lawyers who are under investigation for an offence are suspended from practising law.

In the case of Hassiba Boumerdesi, the prison authorities allege that she passed on to a detainee the minutes of a court hearing pertaining to his case without having obtained permission. By contrast, Hassiba Boumerdesi states that she obtained verbal authorization from the prison authorities before passing the document on. In Amine Sidhoum’s case, he is accused of having given several of his business cards containing his contact details to a client in detention. Amine Sidhoum admits that he passed on his business cards to the detainee, but does not consider that he committed an offence in doing so.

Amnesty International is concerned that Hassiba Boumerdesi and Amine Sidhoum are being prosecuted for activities which they carried out legally and in the interest of assisting their clients. The charges against them are based on legal provisions which expressly ban the illegal transfer to detainees of « money, correspondence, medicine, or any other unauthorized object ». By misusing this provision to criminalize the passing of legal documents and contact details, the authorities are also preventing the lawyers from offering their clients an effective defence.

Amnesty International fears that the real reason the two lawyers are facing charges is that they have exposed breaches of Algerian and international law by the authorities. Both lawyers are known for their human rights work. They have defended, among others, people accused of terrorism-related offences, and have exposed systematic human rights violations in terrorism-related cases, including the widespread use of torture and the denial of fair trials, as well as the routine failure of the judicial authorities to investigate allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.

In addition to the charges mentioned above, Amine Sidhoum also faces defamation charges in a separate case because he publicly criticized the fact that one of his clients had been detained for two and a half years without trial. Based on quotes attributed to him on the basis of a newspaper interview, Amine Sidhoum was charged this month with bringing the judiciary into disrepute and remains provisionally at liberty awaiting trial.

Amnesty International recalls the right and duty of lawyers to uphold human rights as enshrined in international law and standards. Principle 14 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states: « Lawyers, in protecting the rights of their clients and in promoting the cause of justice, shall seek to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized by national and international law and shall at all times act freely and diligently in accordance with the law and recognized standards and ethics of the legal profession. »

Amnesty International calls on the Algerian authorities to protect lawyers from intimidation and harassment, in accordance with international law and standards. Principle 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provides that « governments shall ensure that lawyers… shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics. »

Years of violent conflict in which up to 200,000 people were killed have had a major impact on the human rights community in Algeria, seriously hindering its ability to conduct human rights work. Few lawyers today openly defend the rights of detainees in politically sensitive cases, such as those relating to terrorist offences.

In recent years, the Algerian government has tightened laws on freedom of expression. The most recent such measure was taken in February 2006 when a law was introduced making public criticism of the conduct of the security forces punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. To Amnesty International’s knowledge, the provision has so far not been applied, but it is a direct threat against human rights defenders and anyone commenting or reporting critically on human rights violations. The same law declared all complaints against the security forces inadmissible in Algerian courts, thereby effectively granting immunity to the security forces.

For further information about recent human rights concerns in Algeria, please refer to the Amnesty International report Unrestrained powers: Torture by Algeria’s Military Security, July 2006, AI Index: MDE 28/004/2006.