The Algerian authorities have been holding at least four people for more than four months, including a journalist, for allegedly helping an activist to leave the country in February 2023, Human Rights Watch, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and EuroMed Rights said today. The activist, Amira Bouraoui, who was convicted for her peaceful activism and was subjected to an arbitrary travel ban since 2021, fled across the Tunisian border.
The investigation into Bouraoui’s departure resulted in the arrest of five people starting February 8, including journalist Mustapha Bendjama. In a spinoff from this first round-up, the authorities arrested four more people and launched additional politically motivated prosecutions against Bendjama, and at least two others, including the Algerian-Canadian researcher Raouf Farrah, in a second investigation. The authorities should drop all the charges against Bouraoui and release anyone whose detention stems directly or indirectly from the unjust charges related to her departure.
“Algerian authorities are not only punishing anyone they suspect of aiding Amira Bouraoui to leave the country to escape political persecution,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They’ve used the case to expand their repression.”
Bouraoui is a gynecologist who has been active politically since 2011, including during the Hirak protest movement, which since 2019 peacefully demanded far-reaching democratic reforms. In 2021, she was sentenced to a total of four years in prison in two cases for “insulting the president” and “offending Islam.” Her sentences were never executed.
Bouraoui, an Algerian-French dual national, arrived in France on February 8, after she left Algeria via its eastern land border and narrowly escaped extradition from Tunisia. Her departure sparked a diplomatic row between Algiers and Paris. Within days, the Algerian authorities arrested at least five people in connection with her departure, including two relatives and Bendjama. The police, who confiscated Bendjama’s phone following his arrest, partly based what became a second investigation on private conversations found on his phone, his lawyer told the media.
In subsequent days, the authorities arrested four more people, including Farrah and his father in the eastern city of Annaba, which Bouraoui had passed through en route from Algiers to Tunisia.
“Algerian authorities’ revenge frenzy following Bouraoui’s departure only show how intent they are on keeping activists under their tight grip and putting their lives on hold,” said Amna Guellali, research director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
According to signatory organizations’ information, four people remain in detention in the first case directly related to the activist’s departure, including Bendjama. He and two others are detained in the second case. At least nine people are under investigation in both cases.
Those arrested for allegedly participating in Bouraoui’s departure include her mother, Khadidja Bouraoui, 71; Amira’s cousin, Yacine Bentayeb; Djamel Miassi, the taxi driver who drove Bouraoui from Annaba to Tunis; Bendjama; and a police border officer whose name has not been disclosed.
On February 20, the authorities released Khadidja Bouraoui and placed her under judicial supervision. Bendjama, Bentayeb, and Miassi are detained in Boussouf prison in Constantine.
Bentayeb was arrested on February 10 and placed in pretrial detention on February 19, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD).
Bouraoui said during a TV interview that she had “crossed the Oum Teboul border post without assistance of any kind, either from Bendjama or a border police officer.” Bouraoui has remained abroad since leaving Algeria, like many other activists who have fled the country fearing prosecution for their role in demanding major political reforms and denouncing human rights abuses.
Bendjama, 32, is the editor-in-chief of the independent Annaba-based newspaper Le Provincial. He was arrested in his newsroom in Annaba on February 8 and formally placed in pretrial detention on February 19 on charges of “criminal organization to commit the crime of illegal immigration,” and “smuggling of migrants within the framework of an organized criminal gang,” under articles 176, 177 and 303 bis of the penal code. Those charges relate to the investigation into Bouraoui’s departure, his lawyer, Adel Messaoudi, told Human Rights Watch.
In the second case, Bendjama is accused of “receiving funding from foreign or domestic institutions in order to commit public order offenses,” under article 95 bis of the penal code and “publishing on electronic networks or via technological media tools information that is partly or entirely classified as secret,” under article 38 of ordinance 09-21 on data and administrative documents protection of 2021. Bendjama was questioned twice in the first investigation and four times in the second one, Messaoudi said.
Bendjama has previously faced police harassment and several prosecutions for his work as a journalist and his involvement in the Hirak movement. A trial is scheduled for July 9 in a case for which he was sentenced in absentia to one year in prison in June 2021. He was charged with defamation and harming the public welfare in connection with an article denouncing the authorities’ double standards in enforcing Covid-related restrictions.
Raouf Farrah, who works as an analyst for the Geneva-based group Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and who had collaborated with Bendjama on a collective book on Algeria, was arrested by the national gendarmerie on February 14, while on a family visit in Annaba. He also faces charges under article 95 bis of the penal code and article 38 of ordinance 09-21, according to his organization and lawyer.
The authorities arrested Farrah’s father, Sebti Farrah, 67, on February 15 and provisionally released him on April 13. He is charged under articles 41 and 95 bis of the penal code, his son’s organization and lawyer said.
Article 95 bis of the penal code, which defines offenses in excessively vague terms and provides for up to seven years of prison, has become a key tool used by authorities to silence independent and critical voices, along with the country’s antiterrorism law.
Bouraoui, who has been the subject of criminal proceedings for her activism for years, and Bendjama have both been under travel bans. Bendjama had been banned from leaving the country on several occasions and was turned back at the Algerian-Tunisian border at least three times in 2022, he said on his social media accounts.
At least a dozen activists and critics have faced arbitrary formal or informal travel bans for indefinite periods, despite article 36 bis of the penal procedure code restricting the conditions for their issuance and their duration.
On February 24, Bouraoui was sentenced in absentia by a Tunisian court to three months in prison for illegal entry into Tunisia, her lawyer, Hashem Badra, told the media.
“While travel restrictions on a person facing legitimate criminal charges may sometimes be necessary and proportional, it is not legitimate for the authorities to impose such bans as a direct consequence of criminalizing peaceful political expression,” said Wadih Al Asmar, president of EuroMed Rights. “They should free everyone swept up in this case who faces politically motivated charges.”
Source: African Business