The 1990s were marked by large-scale human rights violations committed during the Algerian civil war, which stretched from 1991 until 2002. While the state of emergency was lifted in 2011, fundamental freedoms remain restricted and demonstrations are still prohibited in the capital. Although the authorities tolerated peaceful demonstrations in the beginning of the Hirak movement, they resumed arresting groups of protesters in June 2019.
2012–2019: Restrictive Legal Framework
For over two decades, associations were governed by the highly restrictive Law on Associations (Law 90-31 of 1990) [English] [عربي] [French], which was adopted shortly before a military coup and a prolonged period of violence and terrorism in Algeria. Following the pro-reform uprisings in other Arab countries in early 2011, President Bouteflika pledged that he would enact major political and legislative reforms to address popular discontent, including a number of new laws to enhance individual rights and freedoms.
However, the new 2012 Law on Associations (Law 12-06 of 2012) [French] [عربي] created additional restrictions on the freedom of association and generally fails to protect the right in line with Algeria’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This law gave the government broad discretion to refuse to register associations and failed to provide an adequate remedy to appeal the rejection of a registration request. Most notably, the law allowed the executive to refuse to register any association whose purpose would be contrary to “national constants and values, public order, good morals and the provisions of the laws in force.”
The law also allowed the government to suspend an association’s activities or dissolve it on vague grounds, placed restrictions on associations’ founders, made it difficult for associations to receive foreign funds, and imposed heavy fines and criminal penalties for members or leaders of informal associations. After the law’s adoption, a number of associations faced new obstacles in carrying out their activities, with some organizations opting to close down voluntarily rather than confront administrative and legal hurdles.
In addition, in January 2012, Algeria’s government adopted a new Law on Information, which places substantial restrictions on associations’ ability to publish and disseminate information. The law required all publications to have prior approval from a media regulatory authority. It also restricted expression and access to information that relates to certain subject areas, such as national identity, sovereignty, the economy, and national security. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 32 provisions of the information law could be used to repress free expression; many were broadly written and could serve as a pretext for unwarranted censorship. Violations under this law could result in fines of up to 500,000 dinars (approximately USD 3,500).
In February 2016, Algeria’s Parliament adopted a series of constitutional amendments. The government had first pledged to reform the constitution in response to popular protests in 2011, and it was hoped that the new reforms would help to strengthen Algeria’s democracy and its framework for fundamental rights. Among other things, the 2016 amendments reintroduced a two-term limit on the presidency, provided for the creation of an independent election commission, and expanded on existing protections for the freedoms of assembly and the media. The 2016 amendments established a National Council for Human Rights, replacing the National Consultative Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (CNCPPDH), to promote, monitor and protect human rights in the country.
Despite these amendments, authorities continued to violate fundamental rights and freedoms by relying on existing legislation.
2019–2021: Calls for Regime Change
In February 2019, following the announcement that, despite being incapacitated, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was going to seek a fifth presidential mandate during the April 2019 elections, mass popular protests erupted across the country. On April 2, 2019, Bouteflika resigned as president and, on April 9, 2019, Abdelkader Bensalah became acting head of state.
Demonstrations (known as the Hirak movement) continued, with people demanding an effective change in the country’s power structures and institutions. The elections scheduled to be held in April 2019 were cancelled and it was announced that they would be held on December 12, 2019, amid continued peaceful protests over their legitimacy and effective representability. The continued bi-weekly protests were met by an increased crackdown by the military, under the leadership of Army-chief Ahmed Gaid Salah. Civil society space was increasingly restricted by the arrests of protesters, bloggers, political opponents and other peaceful activists. The pre-election period was marked by several trials against civil society members on one hand and, on the other hand, trials of members of the former government of Bouteflika.
On November 28, 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation of freedoms in Algeria, calling on the Algerian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those charged for exercising their right to freedom of expression, to put an end to any form of intimidation, to amend Law 91-19 amending Law No. 89-28 of 1989 on Public Meetings and Demonstrations to remove all restrictions on peaceful demonstrations that are not absolutely necessary or proportionate, and to eliminate and prevent any form of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials while dispersing public gatherings.
High abstention rates were a feature of the December 2019 elections, with electoral participation falling to less than 40%. Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected president, however, the bi-weekly demonstrations remain ongoing. In February 2020, protests marked the one year anniversary of the movement. Algerian civil society remained divided over the legitimacy of the new president’s mandate as the organization of the elections and the selection of candidates were determined by the same political system that the popular demonstrations are protesting against.
Restrictions on civil society space, and the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, have continued under Tebboune’s presidency. In February 2020, Human Rights Watch announced that at least 173 protesters were on trial on charges that relate to either their activism or their peaceful participation in protests. In addition, on February 16, 2020, police in Algiers prohibited groups active in protesting for regime change from holding a news conference in a hotel in Algiers.
In March 2020, the President banned all protests, marches, demonstrations and other mass gatherings in in the name of the stopping the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. In another restrictive measure, Law No. 20-06 amending the Penal Code was adopted following a restricted parliamentary debate. The amendments increase penalties for defamation, sanction the dissemination of “false information,” and provide the authorities with excessive powers to prosecute civil society activists who receive foreign funding if they consider that their activities undermine the “normal functioning of institutions” or “national unity.” In a communication issued in December 2021, several Special Procedures mandate-holders highlighted the lack of the necessary precision to ensure that the measures provided in the law would be necessary and proportionate.
On September 15, 2020, Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to two years in prison for his coverage of Hirak after being charged with “undermining the integrity of the national territory” and “unarmed assembly.” Drareni was sentenced alongside two prominent Algerian activists, Samir Benlarbi and Slimane Hamitouche, who were released shortly thereafter. These charges, which are based on articles 96 and 100 of the Penal Code, have been regularly used by the Algerian authorities against peaceful demonstrators. In response to Drareni’s arrest, UN officials issued a public statement calling for his immediate and unconditional release. They additionally expressed concern over the Algerian authorities’ use of national security laws to prosecute people exercising their fundamental freedoms.
Also, in September 2020, the national Algérie Presse Service falsely claimed that human rights complaints filed by Algerian activists and citizens were rejected by the “Geneva Office of the Dispute Tribunal.” In response, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement asserting that the information contained in the article was a complete fabrication, pointing out that there was no organization called “Geneva Office of the Dispute Tribunal.”
Lastly, in November 2020, new constitutional reforms were approved by a popular referendum, despite the lowest voter turnout in Algeria’s history. The reforms, which are largely seen as an effort by the Algerian authorities to end the Hirak movement, did not offer sweeping changes. Instead, they maintained the powers of the president to make key appointments and influence all branches of government.
2021: Half-hearted Concessions
In January 2021, the founder of the satirical Facebook page Hirak Memes, Walid Kechida, was sentenced to three years in prison for “attacking constituted bodies” and “insulting and offending the President.” In the following month, on February 19, 2021, the authorities ordered the release of dozens of detainees who had been arrested in connection with pro-democracy demonstrations after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune granted a “presidential pardon” to around 55 to 60 detainees. Among those released was journalist Khaled Drareni. On March 25, 2021, the Supreme Court of Algeria overturned Drareni’s conviction and ordered that he be retried in the Algiers court. His trial date has been set for September 23, 2021.
Tebboune also announced the dissolution of the National Popular Assembly and called for early elections. These measures, which were announced on the eve of the Hirak’s second anniversary on February 22, 2021, were taken in an attempt to prevent the resurgence of the protests that had diminished in intensity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 14, 2021, Tebboune announced that early legislative elections will take place on June 12, 2021.
Despite the presidential pardon, attacks on freedom of the press have not diminished. On March 19, 2021, Algerian journalist Rabah Karèche working for the newspaper Liberté was arrested one day after writing an article about a protest movement led by the Tuareg community of Ahaggar in the southern city of Tamanrasset. Among other accusations, he was charged with the “dissemination of information or news, false or slanderous, likely to undermine public security or order” under article 196 bis of the Penal Code. On August 12, 2021, Karèche was sentenced to a one-year prison sentence, with an eight-month enforced sentence by the Court of Tamanrasset.
On April 22, 2021, the Court of Sidi Mohamed sentenced Saïd Djabelkheir, an Algerian islamologist, to three years in prison for “offending” Islam on the basis of article 144 bis 2 of the Penal Code. Djabelkheir was sentenced in response to several Facebook posts shared in January 2020 in which he expressed his opinion on several theological issues. He has appealed the decision and his trial date has been set for September 20, 2021. In addition, his lawyer challenged the constitutionality of article 144 bis 2, but the Supreme Court refused to refer it to the Constitutional Court.
On May 30, 2021, Tebboune also adopted Ordinances No. 21-08 and No. 21-09, both of which contained provisions that are incompatible with several articles of the ICCPR and entered into force on June 9, 2021, just three days before national parliamentary elections were held, and without any parliamentary debate as a result of Tebboune’s dissolution of parliament on March 1, 2021. Ordinance No. 21-08 amends and supplements Ordinance No. 66 of June 8, 1966 and further amends Algeria’s Penal Code by introducing provisions that broaden the definition of terrorism and establish a national list of terrorist persons and entities. As established by article 87 bis 13 of the Ordinance, individuals can be designated as terrorists in the absence of a final court judgement and in contradiction to the principle of the presumption of innocence enshrined in article 14(2) of the ICCPR.
This reform came as the authorities are increasingly resorting to charges of terrorism to prosecute activists and human rights defenders who have played a role in the protest movement. On April 28, 2021, the prosecutor of the first instance court in Oran prosecuted 15 Hirak activists, including Kaddour Chouicha, Djamila Loukil and Said Boudour, and members of the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme under several articles in the Penal Code, such as enrolment in a terrorist or subversive organization active abroad or in Algeria. On June 17, 2021, their situation was highlighted in several special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, which stated that the accusations of terrorist activities against them appeared “to be directly related to their peaceful commitment to human rights in Algeria, and in particular their exercise of their rights to peaceful assembly and expression.” On September 5, 2022, they were summoned to appear before the investigative judge of the Fifth Chamber of the Specialized Criminal Court’s Department of Combating Terrorism and Transnational Crime in Algiers.
In September 2021, the authorities also arrested Hassan Bouras and Mohamed Mouloudj. Bouras is a journalist and member of the human rights league based in El Bayadh, who was accused of “undermining national unity”, “offending public bodies”, “spreading false information”, “membership in a terrorist group,” “apologizing for terrorism,” and “conspiring against state security,” among other charges, in connection with his Facebook posts. Mouloudj, who works as a journalist at the French-speaking daily Liberté, was charged with “spreading false news, harming national unity, and belonging to a terrorist group,” the latter charge being in reference to the MAK movement.
Ordinance No. 21-09 on the other hand relates to the classification of administrative documents and information. The ordinance prohibits and punishes the publishing or distribution of classified documents, in addition to documents related to judicial inquires or investigations. It also allows judicial police officers to place invasive surveillance technologies on electronic networks without authorization or supervision by a judicial authority, thus violating individuals right to privacy as enshrined in article 17 of the ICCPR.
On October 13, 2021, the Administrative Tribunal in Algiers complied with a petition made by the Ministry of Interior to dissolve prominent youth organization Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse (RAJ), alleging that RAJ violated the 2012 Law on Associations by taking part in activities that were different from those set out in its statutes. Following the hearing, on October 13, 2021, RAJ decided to appeal the decision before the Algerian Council of State, which has yet to rule on RAJ’s case.
From 2022 Onward: Towards a Restricted Civic Space
In February 2022, the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD) estimated that at least 280 people were imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions as of April 2022, most of them in relation to the Hirak. Also in early 2022, the Council of State ordered the temporary suspension of the activities of the Socialist Workers’ Party (Parti Socialiste des Travailleurs, PST) and the closure of its premises in Algiers following a complaint by the Ministry of Interior in April 2021 for allegedly failing to hold its annual congress as required in its by-laws and Law No. 12-04 on Political Parties.
In order to enforce Ordinance No. 21-08, the authorities published a national list of terrorist persons and entities in the official gazette in February 2022. The list includes the Rachad movement and the Movement for the Self-Determination of the Kabylie region (MAK) as well as 16 alleged members of both organizations. At the same time, the authorities continue to resort to terrorism charges to prosecute individuals exercising peacefully their fundamental freedoms.
The first half of 2022 was also marked by renewed attacks against lawyers, who faced charges for defending their clients and exercising their right to freedom of expression. For example, Abderraouf Arslane, a lawyer from Tébessa, was arrested in court on May 26, 2021, while he was defending three Hirak activists. He was held in pre-trial detention for having ties with the Rachad movement and expressing his opinions online and was charged with “spreading fake news” and terrorist-related offences. On June 15, 2022, Arslane was sentenced to three years in prison, two of which were suspended. He was subsequently released after serving his one-year sentence.
Abdelkader Chohra of the Chlef Bar was also arrested on May 14, 2022 while participating in a peaceful gathering outside Al Kliaa prison in Tipaza to protest the suspicious death of activist Hakim Debbazi, who died while being held in pre-trial detention. Two weeks later, on May 31, 2022, Yacine Khlifi, a lawyer registered with the Algiers Bar, was arrested and brought before the public prosecutor of Chlef. Both Chohra and Khlifi were detained on charges of “spreading fake news” and “incitement to an unarmed gathering.” Both were defending Algerian businessman Rachid Nekaz, who had been held in pre-trial detention since May 15, 2022.
On December 29, 2022, Ihsane El Kadi, the director of Radio M and Maghreb émergent, was arrested for having received funds from foreign sources allegedly in contravention of article 95 of the Penal Code. In 2022, he had already been sentenced to six months in prison following a complaint filed by the former Communication Minister, Amar Belhimer, related to an opinion piece for Radio M on March 23, 2021. In that piece, Ihsane El Kadi called on calling for the inclusion of all ideological tendencies in the Hirak, including the Rachad movement. On April 2, 2023, the Sidi M’Hamed court in Algiers sentenced Ihsane El Kadi to five years in prison, including two years on probation. On June 18, 2023, his sentence was increased on appeal to seven years in prison, including two years on probation. Three months prior to that, in February 2023, the authorities also arrested several people on suspicion of being linked to the fleeing of French-Algerian journalist Amira Bouraoui from Tunisia to France, including Mustapha Bendjama, who is the editor-in-chief of local independent news website Le Provincial. Three other defendants and Bendjama were later charged with the “receipt of funds from abroad for the purpose of committing acts against public order” and “publication of classified information on the Internet”.
In this context of declining press freedom, the Algerian parliament passed a new media law in April 2023. Certain provisions, such as the obligation of prior accreditation for journalists working for a foreign media or the introduction of a series of sanctions in case of breaches or offences, raise serious concerns. However, the text is still yet to be ratified by the president and published in the Official Gazette.