Banned, intimidated, driven into exile
The decision was not surprising, but nonetheless "extremely shocking and worrying". With these words, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a Paris-based umbrella federation of countless human rights organisations from around the world, commented on the official dissolution of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (Ligue Algerienne pour la Defense des Droits de lˈHomme, LADDH).
In the view of the successive closure of the partial space for civil society groups critical of the government, already underway since 2020, that had been previously lasted for more than 20 years, this news is indeed not unexpected. However, it is still a serious blow for Algerian human rights organisations.
It was mid-January 2023 before it became public that an administrative court in Algiers had already dissolved LADDH in June 2022 and finally issued the verdict in writing in September. The vice-president of LADDH’s Bejaia office, Said Salhi, reacted with indignation towards the ruling and the lack of transparency on the part of the authorities.
The league had not been informed about the court decision, but had only learned about it from social media, the human rights activist, who fled to exile in France in 2022, revealed on Twitter.
Since Algeriaˈs Ministry of Interior had requested the judicial dissolution of LADDH in May 2022, the league had neither had the chance to examine the court files or to comment on the allegations, which remain unclear to this day, nor had it been informed about the formal grounds of the complaint, LADDH said in a statement. The decision only mentioned that the league had allegedly violated prevailing regulations.
It is a decision that needs to be taken very seriously, however. Shortly after the league’s closure was made public, authorities officially sealed the offices of two local organisations associated with LADDH.
The first one to be affected was the Documentation Centre for Human Rights (Centre de documentation et d’information en droit de l’homme, CDDH) in the coastal city of Bejaia east of Algiers; a week later authorities also sealed the offices of the House of Human and Citizensˈ Rights (Maison des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, MDHC) in Tizi Ouzou in the Kabylia region.
The dissolution of the league, established in 1985 and officially legalised in 1989, is a severe blow to civil society in the country. The organisation was one of the most outspoken human rights groups in Algeria, with a developed network of regional and international contacts.
Although internal disputes had already led to the leagueˈs split in the 2000s – the organisation’s regional offices have operated independently ever since – the LADDH offices nevertheless remained key actors in the fight against state reprisals against opposition figures, dissidents and protest movements and for the rights of refugees, migrants, and religious and ethnic minorities.
The dissolution of LADDH has been strongly criticised by international organisations, as well as Algerian NGOs, activists, and opposition parties such as the Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie, RCD). The president of the RCD, Atmane Mazouz, said in a statement that the "almost clandestine dissolution" of the league is an expression of despotism rather than authoritarian power.
Civil society targeted
Meanwhile, in an odd newsflash on 31 January, Algeria’s official news agency, Algerie Presse Service (APS), referred to "the very credible sources" of an Algerian journalist, claiming that the human rights league had been banned due to the absence of its expatriate leaders.
Salhi countered the claim on Twitter, pointing out that the presidents of two LADDH wings, Hocine Zehouane and Noureddine Benissad, still live in Algeria.
The real reasons for the closure of the organisation are likely to be its critical stance towards the government and its acceptance of foreign funds. The latter in particular has been long a red flag for Algeriaˈs government and is generally viewed with suspicion. So far, however, the authorities have mostly tolerated financial funding for Algerian NGOs from abroad and have only launched public side blows against them or ramped up administrative hurdles for organisations considered critical of the authorities.
In this vein, the APS report also mentioned the "very enigmatic opacity of financial management of the now ex-league" – a clear indication of what the ban is really about.
Since the ousting of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika by the mass uprising against the regime – generally dubbed as Hirak (Arabic for movement) – the wind has changed in the country. Following the outbreak of the corona pandemic in 2020, the Hirak ceased its weekly demonstrations against the regime and the military leadership. It became an immediate target for state reprisals.
The authorities have increasingly and systematically sued and banned civil society organisations as well as leftist and liberal opposition parties associated with the Hirak, while dissidents have been imprisoned and silenced.
The official closure of the NGO SOS Bab El Oued in Algiers in 2020 was followed by judicial proceedings against the youth association Rally for Youth Actions (Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse, RAJ), which was very active during the Hirak protests, with the aim of imposing a ban. Meanwhile, also in January, the organisation SOS Disparu in Algiers was approached by the police, who apparently intended to hand over a summons to the leadership of the NGO.
It is still unclear what this was about, but the organisation has been a target for the authorities for years, since it represents the families of those people who were forcibly abducted, mostly by security forces during the bloody civil war of the 90s, while those affected have since been disappeared. The issue is still considered taboo.
Free press in danger
While Algeriaˈs politically active civil society seems to be facing a seriously comprehensive shut down, the Algerian press, considered diverse and outspoken since the early 1990s, despite the countryˈs authoritarian rule, is also increasingly under attack. Since 2020, journalists critical of the government have been repeatedly intimidated, arrested, prosecuted or sentenced to jail.
On 25 December 2022, the director of the two online media outlets Radio M and Maghreb Emergent, Ihsane El Kadi, was arrested in the city of Boumerdes and has been held in pre-trial detention in the notorious El Harrach prison in Algiers ever since. The offices of the two outlets in Algiers were raided and sealed the day after El Kadiˈs arrest, having technical equipment and cash confiscated by authorities. Access to both websites has been blocked in Algeria since mid-January.
No wonder, then, that the optimism temporarily sparked by the Hirak in the – for the most part – younger strata of society has all but disappeared since 2020. After the military leadership, which has firmly regained control of the country’s political sphere since Bouteflika’s ousting, managed to install another compliant president in Algiers – Abdelmajid Tebboune – in late 2019, the wind has unequivocally changed.
Tebboune, together with Algeriaˈs security and judicial authorities, is now gradually closing down the space for opposition, civil society and the free press, in the process restoring an authoritarian system of government. The prospects for freedom of assembly, association, of the press and expression in years to come could hardly be worse.
© Qantara.de 2023