As Algeria combats the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities have extended the imprisonment of opposition leaders, detained prominent journalists, and summoned for questioning dozens of political activists. On April 1, 2020, purportedly to combat the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pardoned 5,037 prisoners who had a year or less of their sentence remaining. However, those pardoned did not include individuals detained for their participation in the Hirak protest movement. Nearly 50 political prisoners remain in prison, and more members of civil society were targeted following the pardon decision, including journalist Sofiane Merakchi, who was sentenced to eight months in prison on April 5, and Abdelouahab Fersaoui, activist and head of the civic group Youth Action Rally (RAJ), who was sentenced to one year in prison on April 6. President Tebboune had also banned all protests, marches, demonstrations, and other mass gatherings in March, due to COVID-19, but anti-regime protests resumed in several cities across Algeria in late May, in support of individuals being detained for their involvement in the Hirak movement.
In addition, as part of a package of measures to combat COVID-19, Algeria’s Parliament adopted amendments to the Penal Code on April 23 that heighten restrictions on freedom of expression during a public health crisis. The amendments increase prison sentences for defamation, and introduce new penalties including prison sentences for the dissemination of false information. Under the amendments, offenders face prison sentences of between one and three years, but penalties are heightened if the offence takes place “at a time of a public health lockdown or a natural, biological or technological catastrophe or any other form of catastrophe,” with first time offenders facing up to five years in prison.
The Penal Code amendments adopted as part of the COVID-19 package also create a new criminal offense that may be used to restrict funding for civil society leaders and organizations. The amendments provide that an individual who receives funds by any means, from a person or entity whether foreign or domestic, for activities “likely to undermine state security, stability, or normal functioning of [state] institutions,” or undermine “the fundamental interests of Algeria” or “public security and order” may be punished by up to seven years in prison. The penalty is doubled to up to 14 years if the individual receives the funds as part of an organization or association. The Penal Code amendments came into force on April 29, 2020.
Learn more about how Algeria’s COVID-19 response impacts civic freedoms with ICNL’s COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker.