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Rights defenders targeted as authorities tighten restrictions on freedom of assembly

A human rights defender and author of a book on forced disappearances and crimes committed in the 1990s in Relizane, the northwest of Algeria, was arrested last week in what appears to be a broad effort to crack down on activists and rights defenders in the country using apparently legal means.

Mohamed Smaïn was arrested on 19 June and ordered to serve a two-month sentence he received last October for allegedly libelling the former mayor of Relizane, reports online news magazine Slate Afrique. Smaïn was originally given a suspended sentence because of an ongoing health condition that required treatment. His recent detention is "symptomatic of the climate of impunity that prevails in Algeria," said the Collective for the Families of the Disappeared and international rights groups in a joint statement.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reports on a number of other activists and rights defenders who have faced similar judicial harassment recently, in what they say is "an attempt by the authorities "to disrupt their work aimed at exposing and documenting violations and crimes committed by [President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika's regime."

Earlier this week, four human rights defenders were brought to trial on charges of "inciting an unarmed gathering," reports ANHRI. They were calling for the release of Abdelkader Kherba, a member of the National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed and the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights. Kherba was arrested on 18 April for participating in a peaceful sit-in in solidarity with court clerks demanding better working conditions, reports Front Line Defenders. According to ANHRI, he was handed a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of approximately 200 Euros (US$ 250) on 3 May.

"The trial of the four activists is a flagrant violation of freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association and the freedom to demonstrate. Its aim is to crack down on civil society in Algeria," says ANHRI.

Human Rights Watch noted a similar abuse of the law in the run-up to the May elections. At the time, peaceful demonstrators were detained and others were prevented from reaching the capital on the basis of repressive laws on public gatherings, including a ban on demonstrations in the capital Algiers.

The crackdown has been coupled with the government exerting increased control over the freedoms of assembly and association. Amendments made to the law on associations in December 2011 imposed new restrictions on the creation and funding of associations, such as requiring prior approval from the authorities, according to Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Applications can also be rejected without recourse to the courts.

Plus, the goals of an association's activities must not be contrary to "national values", says the law, and any "interference in the internal affairs of the country" will lead to the group's suspension or dissolution.

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