Abuses and torture in the time of the Algerian Hirak: The Case of Mohamed Abdallah

A. T, Algeria-Watch, 5 January, 2022

On August 21, 2021, the Algerian whistleblower Mohamed Abdallah was transferred from the Zona Franca detention center in Barcelona to the city of Almeria. There he was forced to board a boat bound for Ghazaouet in Algeria, where he was immediately transferred to Algiers and detained. This speedy deportation, authorized by the Spanish Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, provoked a strong reaction from Algerians everywhere as well as from international human rights activists. Since his exile in Spain, ex-gendarme Mohamed Abdallah has led a peaceful fight against the crimes of the Algerian military junta, in particular by exposing numerous cases of corruption involving high-ranking army officers. His fight for justice has earned him the respect of his compatriots both at home and in the diaspora; he personifies the struggle of millions of young Algerians who are calling for a Civilian State ruled by Law.

Currently detained in an Algerian jail where torture and ill-treatment are systemic1, in particular when it comes to political activists, Mohamed Abdallah has unfortunately been the victim of serious abuses committed by the political police. By expelling him, the Spanish government is complicit with the Algerian military junta and political police in the torture of Abdallah. It is responsible for sealing Abdallah’s fate as he was knowingly and cynically handed over to torturers.

This contribution aims to present the journey of Mohamed Abdallah as well as the conditions of his “extradition” or, to be more accurate, his deportation, since this purely administrative expulsion was not the subject of any court decision by the Spanish authorities, who handed him over to his torturers. The strictly unfounded nature of the Algerian regime’s accusations against Mohamed Abdallah, as well as the criminal collaboration of the Spanish government, are clearly apparent.

An Honest Soldier in the Face of a Corrupt System

Mohamed Abdallah was born on February 27, 1988, in Oran where he grew up and went to school until he received his bachelor’s degree in 2007. He then joined the school of under-officers of the national gendarmerie in Sidi Bel Abbès, then in Tiaret, where he obtained the professional military diploma n°2 in “Applied Communications” with the title of Communications Officer. After receiving his training, he was posted in the far south of Algeria, at the 43rd border patrol unit of Tirinine, in the region of Ain Guezzam. Subsequently, he chose to complete his training to become a member of the light aviation unit of the gendarmerie. This choice earned him a series of successive assignments in different Algerian regions and cities (Blida, Biskra, Tipaza, Tizi-Ouzou, Bejaia, Bouira). When he was transferred to Blida in 2012-2013, he enrolled at the local university to pursue a degree in sociology, but unfortunately, he couldn’t complete his studies after being transferred to another city. These assignments in different parts of the country both familiarized Mohamed Abdallah with very diverse social realities and consolidated his patriotic beliefs. His situation stabilized following his transfer in 2013 to the city of Tébessa, where he joined a helicopter squadron tasked with monitoring Algeria’s border with Tunisia. The region is known to be a hotspot for all kinds of trafficking, where “barons” at the height of the power structures thrive on various kinds of smuggling, generating significant amounts of illicit money.

This last episode is essential in Mohamed Abdallah’s journey within the military institution. After serving for six years in the city of Tébessa, he realizes the extent to which corruption is rampant in Algeria. Though taught throughout his training that this phenomenon is marginal and easily mitigated, he quickly understands its endemic nature. Throughout his observations, he notes that officers of the gendarmerie, in collusion with political authorities in the region and corrupt businessmen, are involved in cross-border trafficking. In trying to denounce these activities to his superiors, Mohamed Abdallah is surprised by their indifference and laxity. He also gradually realizes that whistleblowing to his superiors presents a threat to his life.

Beyond simple trafficking, he also witnesses transgressions that threaten national security. Among the stories circulating within the gendarmerie, Abdallah learns of a particularly serious case involving the commander of the national defense group of Souk Ahras2.

In 2016, this gendarmerie officer authorized a group of smugglers to transport arms into Algeria across the Tunisian border. These same weapons are discovered during the subsequent neutralization of a group of terrorists in the Jijel Mountains. Of course, this affair is kept secret from the general public and no national media mentions it. In addition, Mohamed Abdallah is outraged to witness the brutal and unfair treatment of civilians by the gendarmes, and he cannot bear the impunity of their abuse of power.

Faced with so much corruption and injustice, Mohamed Abdallah searches for a better system. He begins to pay more attention to the opposition and its players. He gravitates towards the ideas of peaceful criticism and gradually, from a simple spectator, he too becomes a voice of active resistance against the dictatorship.

A Whistleblower in Exile

The prevalence of repression, suspicion, and generalized surveillance creates an unbreathable atmosphere in Algeria, and the danger of being arrested, with the terrible consequences that such arrests entail, leads Mohamed Abdallah to consider leaving the country to be politically active in a safer environment. Abdallah looks for a legal way to leave Algeria and on November 8, 2018, using a tourist visa, he and his wife and child head for San Juan de Alicante, in Spain. There, he obtains the status of an asylum seeker for himself and his family on April 25, 2019.

Upon his arrival in Spain, Mohamed Abdallah, an active whistleblower, devotes himself to enlightening the Algerians on the excesses and abuses of the military dictatorship, his numerous contacts within the gendarmerie allow him to stay up to date on what is happening in Algeria. His activity as a whistleblower predictably earns him threats and bribery attempts from the “barons” of Tébessa traffickers. Mohamed Abdallah also exposes the ill-gotten wealth of the Algerians in Spain who benefit from the existing Algerian system. One can cite, for example, the family of former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia or that of General-Major Habib Chentouf. As a result of his reporting, Abdallah becomes a spokesperson for the destitute.

In this way, Abdallah reveals to the Spanish public the alarming case of forced labor involving an Algerian migrant and a couple of Algerian executives, Belhabchia Réda and Chahra Narrimen, residents of Alicante3.

The migrant is an illiterate woman in her forties who only speaks Amazigh – a minor language of the Berber nomads – and who is hired as a maid in the couple’s sumptuous villa. The migrant was promised to be regularized as a resident of Spain in exchange for housekeeping services. Unfortunately, once she arrived in Spain, the couple confiscated her passport and the migrant fell victim to extensive abuse: She was subjected to insults and humiliations daily and was forced to live in an unsanitary garage. The owners of the premises prohibited her from entering the villa and to punish her, they often forced her to spend the night outside. During her year of service to Belhabchia and Narrimen (January to December 2020), the migrant was provided with food and clothing very sparingly while being kept completely isolated from the outside world. Informed by the relatives of the concerned, Abdallah contacted the Spanish police and accompanied them to the couple’s villa to ensure that the victim would be well taken care of by the authorities. After seeing the conditions in which the woman lived, the police decided to take her to the station so that she could file a complaint and seek shelter.

In the context of Hirak, Mohamed Abdallah, with a YouTube channel of 134,000 followers and a Facebook page of 130,000 followers, becomes a nightmare for the Algerian regime. In the summer of 2020, intelligence agents begin to track down his family, who are followed and surveilled. On August 3, 2020, they attack Mohamed Abdallah while he is repairing his car by the side of the road. Two men, Mohamed Amine Boucetia and Abdelhalim Alleli, drive up to Abdallah in a BMW vehicle 4. From the outset, they start insulting him and snatch his wallet from his car. Abdallah promptly turns on his phone and launches a live video feed on his Facebook page 5; which doesn’t discourage the two individuals from continuing to insult him. Mohamed Abdallah stays calm and escapes the trap which they tried to lead him to. He later files a complaint against the two attackers (see document 1).

In addition to these live-streamed attacks, Mohamed Abdallah is threatened by a certain Said Bensedira (see photo 1), a YouTuber living in London and known to be the spokesperson for the military junta and its clans. Bensedira, on his Facebook page, speaks of kidnapping Abdallah while posting photos of Abdallah taken by hidden cameras without his knowledge.

Faced with all these threats, Abdallah and his wife contact the Spanish police and file several complaints, as they fear the worst for their children (see document 2). They decide to leave Alicante and resettle in the north of Spain, in the city of Vitoria in the Basque Country. However, this does not protect Abdallah from the Algerian regime, which will succeed in having him expelled with the complicity of the Spanish government.

Photo 1. Translation of the text: “Eid Mubarak Oh Dog of one of Zitout’s dogs … After Guermit Bounouira it will be your turn. Rest assured, all your moves are under surveillance … You will soon get a surprise.”

Expulsion From Spain and Torture in Algerian Jails

The expulsion of Mohamed Abdallah to Algeria is part of a global strategy of the military junta, mobilized since the “dirty war” of the 1990s, which aims to silence the important figures of Hirak. Since the resurgence of popular protests in February 2021, the Algerian regime has used accusations of terrorism to suppress and intimidate activists in the country and the diaspora6. Based on spurious accusations, the regime issues international arrest warrants with which it justifies the detainment of arbitrary groups7.

To do this, Algerian generals do not hesitate to bargain with foreign powers to repress their fellow citizens. It is in this particular context that the Mohamed Abdallah affair unfolded – a flagrant example of complicity between the Spanish authorities and the Algerian military junta.

The first antecedent which served to justify the expulsion of Abdallah is an international arrest warrant issued by the public prosecutor of the court of Bir Mourad-Raïs. The warrant, dated March 22, 2021, is issued against Mohamed Abdallah, Amir Boukhours (known as Amir DZ), Mohamed Larbi Zitout, and Hichem Aboud. The prosecutor’s statement refers to accusations of “joining a terrorist group targeting state security and national unity, financing a terrorist group and money laundering as part of a criminal gang8. These accusations are based mainly on the testimony of a former participant in the “dirty war”, known under the name of Ahmed Mansouri (a repentant former member of Islamist armed groups, known to be close to the political police, Mansouri is also known for using his contacts to extort money from poor citizens in Algeria). According to Mansouri, the four defendants are part of an international network for financing terrorist groups; the source of income would be affiliated with companies located in a country neighboring Algeria. Of course, there is no evidence to support these charges, but the arrest warrants were issued anyway. The so-called Mansouri, placed under arrest warrant, disappeared from the radar, even though he was making media headlines in the prior weeks. This case had no significant immediate impact on Mohamed Abdallah, but it later served as the basis for his expulsion from Spain by the Algerian regime.

On August 11, 2021, Mohamed Abdallah comes to renew his residence permit in a police station in Vitoria, a routine procedure he is well accustomed to. There, he is informed that his asylum application has been refused. Arrested on the spot, he is transferred to a detention center for irregular migrants, near Barcelona. On August 19, Mohamed Abdallah and other Algerians detained with him undergo a PCR test, during which procedure they are informed that this test is a requirement of the Algerian authorities. Mohamed Abdallah and his compatriots then begin a hunger strike in a show of protest. On Friday, August 20, 2021, at 9:58 p.m., the decision to expel Abdallah is announced by the Minister of the Interior Fernando Grande-Marlaska9.

This placed the whistleblower’s lawyers in a Kafkaesque situation: They couldn’t challenge the expulsion decision in the administrative court, which was closed for the summer break. In addition, the fact that the decision came down on Friday made it difficult to mobilize human rights NGOs. This only adds to the already suspicious nature of this premeditated maneuver. Taken aback, Abdallah’s lawyers would try to communicate with the Spanish civil court, but unfortunately, the case was outside of the court’s jurisdiction. As for the European Court of Human Rights, the requirement is to exhaust all the appeals in Spain first. Abdallah is finally placed on a plane to Almeria on August 21 at 4 a.m., barely a few hours after the eviction notice, to then be put aboard a ship bound for the port of Ghazaouet in Algeria.

What is surprising when examining the expulsion order issued by the Spanish Ministry of the Interior (document 3) is that it accepts the arguments of the Algerian regime without any fact-checking or questioning. Mohamed Abdallah is first presented as a simple soldier without an education, which is completely false, then as a member of a “terrorist” movement called Rachad trying to infiltrate Hirak. Any observer of the Algerian political landscape knows very well that this political movement is peaceful and that it is not classified as a terrorist group either in Europe or in North America. Its executives live and engage in political activities in several Western countries without any issues. Rachad, like multiple political forces from diverse backgrounds, is a stakeholder in Hirak both in Algeria and in the diaspora.

As soon as Mohamed Abdallah arrived in Algeria, he was brought before the judge of the 2nd chamber of the specialized penal pole at the court of Sidi M’hamed and placed under an arrest warrant in the prison El-Harrach. On August 30, 2021, without notice, he was transferred to the high-security prison of Koléa. Detained in an area reserved for people involved in terrorist acts and/or organized crime, he was kept in total isolation from the rest of the prison population and could only leave his cell for one hour each day. Between September 29 and October 14, he was transferred twice to the Antar barracks, a place of torture run by the political police, to be questioned and deprived of sleep and food for several days.

He was also subjected to long sessions of torture and was electrocuted several times with a taser gun by the agents of the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI). These agents of the political police also inflicted on him the “torture of the rag” which consists in placing a sponge in the mouth of the victim whose hands are tied up and suspended so that his head is submerged in a basin of dirty water. Since October 11, Mohamed Abdallah has been held in the military prison of Blida where he has been locked away in inhuman conditions, even harsher than those of Koléa. Deprived of any outside source of information (television, radio, books, newspapers), he is not allowed to leave his cell or communicate with other people. The rare visits he is entitled to are heavily supervised. The last people to see him observed significant weight loss, red eyes, and a haggard look. These disturbing signs show that Mohamed Abdallah has been under heavy psychological pressure and possibly suffered other forms of physical abuse.

The Algerian regime, as well as the Spanish authorities, are responsible for all the harm and damage inflicted on Mohamed Abdallah. Father of two children, including a daughter born in Spain in 2019, any misfortune that could happen to him would be a disaster for his family. It is clear that by carrying out such repatriation and by torturing Mohamed Abdallah and many others, the intelligence services aspire to annihilate Hirak by traumatizing the Algerian youth who demands a civil democratic state.

1 Since the beginning of the Hirak, several communications in cases of abuse and torture have been presented to the United Nations. For example, see communication DZA 6/2021 of 4 August 2021, concerning allegations of sexual assault, torture, and ill-treatment committed against MM. Said Chetouane, Ayoub Chahetou, Nabil Bousekkine and Sami Dernouni.

2 Mr. Abdallah exposes this case in a video he made on his trajectory on March 24, 2021.

3 This case was mentioned by the Spanish press:  » La Guardia Civil libera a una mujer retenida un año en un garaje de Agost « , Las Provincias, February 19 , 2021 ; see also the live of Mr. Abdallah on December 10, 2020.

4 The two individuals have been identified by name and their photos have circulated in social networks (see the post on Mr. Abdallah’s Facebook page on the subject).

6 For a similar case, see A. T, “ Abuses in the Time of Hirak : the construction of the “network of Oran” by the political police,” Algeria-Watch, May 15 , 2021

7 A communication on the abuses linked to the anti-terrorism laws in Algeria was recently presented to the United Nations, see communication OL DZA 12 / 2021 of 27 December 2021.

8 For more details, see the dispatch from Algeria Presse Service,  » An international arrest warrant required against 4 accused of breach of public order« , March 22 , 2021.

9 For more details, see this article on the website of the Mohamed Abdallah defense association:  » El gobierno de Pedro Sánchez entrega activistas pacíficos al regimen militar argelino a cambio de gas « , <mohamedAbdallah.org>, 11 November 2021.