On March 17, 2020, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune banned all protests, marches, demonstrations, and other mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing an end to the weekly Hirak anti-government protests that had continued for more than a year. The government has also been accused of using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to arrest independent journalists including those who covered the Hirak movement, and to implement other restrictive measures.
For example, on April 1, 2020, as a measure against the COVID-19 pandemic, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pardoned 5,037 prisoners whose remaining sentences were 12 months or less. However, none of the Hirak detainees awaiting trial were pardoned. Moreover, since April the authorities have furthered their crackdown by imprisoning opposition leaders and prominent journalists, and have summoned for questioning dozens of political activists. Victims of this wave of repression include journalist Sofiane Merakchi, who was sentenced to eight months in prison on April 5, 2020, and Abdelouahab Fersaoui, an activist and head of the civic group Youth Action Rally (RAJ). Fessaoui was sentenced to one year in prison on April 6, 2020.
In addition, on April 22, 2020, the Algerian government presented Law 20-06 amending the Penal Code to the parliament [عربي] [French]. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government opted for a “restricted” parliamentary debate. The Law entered into force on April 29, 2020 and increases prison sentences for defamation, introduces new penalties, including prison sentences, for the dissemination of “false information,” and severely restrict cCSOs’ ability to obtain foreign funding
Further, on May 25, 2020, anti-regime protests resumed in several cities across Algeria after over two months of interruption due to the outbreak of COVID-19. The protests were in support of individuals currently being detained for their involvement in the Hirak movement. Almost 50 political prisoners remain in jail as of December 2020.
It is also relevant to note that as part of a package of measures to combat COVID-19, Algeria’s Parliament adopted amendments to the Penal Code on April 23, 2020 that heightened restrictions on freedom of expression during a public health crisis. The amendments increased prison sentences for defamation, and introduced new penalties including prison sentences for the dissemination of false information. Under the amendments, offenders faced prison sentences of between one and three years, but penalties were 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 created a new criminal offense that may be used to restrict funding for civil society leaders and organizations. The amendments provided 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 was 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 ECNL-ICNL’s COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker.