Algeria Targets Diaspora Critics

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Algerians demonstrate in Algiers to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak movement, February 22, 2021. 
© 2021 AP Photo/Toufik Doudou

Compared to the most brazen practitioners of pursuing political opponents abroad – Saudi Arabia, for example, dismembering journalist Jamal Khashoggi – Algeria has garnered little attention.

But activists within Algeria’s diaspora are fearful, after several cases that seem to complement government efforts to crush the three-year-old peaceful protest movement known as the “Hirak.”

On March 24, Spain issued an expulsion order against former army corporal Mohamed Benhalima and flew him the same day to Algeria, which had reportedly issued an international arrest warrant for him. Benhalima had fled to Spain in 2019 fearing reprisals, he said, after participating in Hirak street protests. In Europe, Benhalima maintained a YouTube channel denouncing military officials.

Spain twice rejected Benhalima’s asylum application before sending him to Algeria, despite the UN Refugee Agency’s urging Spain to take into account the credible risk of torture and Algeria’s criminalization of peaceful opposition. Benhalima’s lawyer in Spain has appealed his expulsion.

After getting him back, Algerian authorities promptly jailed Benhalima and tried him for publishing “false information” that harms “territorial integrity” – charges that authorities have used to imprison many of the hundreds of Hirak activists currently or formerly imprisoned.

A court had already sentenced Benhalima to 10 years in prison in absentia for these offenses. Another court reportedly sentenced him to death in absentia, for espionage and desertion.

Slimane Bouhafs had been a UN-recognized refugee in Tunisia. He had left Algeria after serving 18 months of a prison term for “insulting Islam.” Bouhafs, a convert to Christianity, advocates for the rights of Algeria’s Kabyle (Berber) population. On August 25, 2021, witnesses reported seeing men in plainclothes abduct him from his home in Tunis. Four days later he surfaced in police custody in Algiers.

Neither Tunisian nor Algerian authorities have claimed responsibility for Bouhafs’ transfer to Algeria. A promise by Tunisian President Kais Saied to investigate the case went nowhere. Algerian authorities, meanwhile, claim that they arrested him inside Algeria. Bouhafs is in jail, awaiting trial on terrorism-related charges. 

Algeria in 2021 broadened the definition of terrorism in penal code article 87bis to include “attempting to gain power or change the system of government through non-constitutional means,” an expansive definition authorities use to prosecute nonviolent opponents, most recently the pro-Hirak journalist Ihsane El Kadi.

This year, at least three Algerian-Canadian binationals were arbitrarily prevented from flying back to Canada and interrogated about their Hirak links. Two of the three were allowed to depart, three months after their initial attempts.

The message is clear: Algerians who speak out need to look out, no matter where they live. 

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