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Algeria cracks down on labour rights activists

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 23 February 2015.

Algerian courts have sentenced nine labor rights activists to prison since late January 2015 for engaging in peaceful protests to support unemployed workers. One was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “unauthorized gathering.” The others received one-year sentences, six months of which were suspended for the same charge.

Algerian authorities should respect the right to peaceful protest and stop prosecuting workers' rights activists on “unauthorized gathering” charges. The government should also amend law 91-19, which unduly restricts the right to peaceful assembly, and penal code provisions that criminalize unauthorized peaceful gatherings.

“Unemployed workers, already suffering because of the economy, now face arrest and imprisonment for peacefully voicing their discontent,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Algerian authorities are woefully misguided if they think that locking up peaceful protesters is the way to deal with their grievances.”

On February 11, the First Instance Tribunal of Laghouat sentenced eight members of the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Unemployed Workers (Comité National pour la Défense des Droits de Chômeurs, CNDDC) to one-year prison terms, half of it suspended. Their lawyer, Ahmine Noureddine, told Human Rights Watch that the court convicted the workers of “unauthorized gathering” under article 97 of the penal code, and “exercising pressure on the decisions of magistrates” under penal code article 147.

Authorities had arrested all eight – Khencha Belkacem, Brahimi Belelmi, Mazouzi Benallal, Azzouzi Boubakeur, Korini Belkacem, Bekouider Faouzi, Bensarkha Tahar, and Djaballah Abdelkader – on January 28 when they assembled outside the court to protest the trial of Mohamed Rag, another CNDDC activist arrested eight days earlier, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

The police report on the January 28 arrests, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, said that the eight activists were gathering in front of the court, waving posters against the Rag trial, when the head of the criminal brigade of the Laghouat police ordered their arrest to prevent “potential trouble to the public order.” Following their sentencing, all nine CNDDC activists went on hunger strike and lodged appeals.

Algerian authorities had previously prosecuted Rag at least twice: in 2013, when a court acquitted him in March of charges of attending and inciting an unauthorized gathering and destroying property after a demonstration outside the government labor office in Laghouat; and in 2014, when the First Instance Court of Laghouat acquitted him on charges arising from a protest demonstration on June 8. In the second case, the court convicted 26 other defendants on charges that included “armed gathering” and violence against the police based on police testimony that did not incriminate the defendants individually. The 26 were sentenced to terms ranging from six months to two years.

In April 2014, the Appeals Court of Ouargla imposed a one-year suspended sentence on another member of the group Houari Djelouli, and fined him 50,000 dinars (about US$530). He was convicted under article 96 of the penal code for distributing CNDDC leaflets calling for a peaceful sit-in protest to demand the right to work that the authorities deemed “likely to undermine national interest.”

Noureddine Abdelaziz, the group's president, told Human Rights Watch that police in Laghouat arrested another CNDDC activist at 6 a.m. on February 11, 2015, when he arrived at the city's train station from Algiers, 400 kilometers north, to attend the trial of the eight activists. Abdelaziz told Human Rights Watch that police released the activist, Tarek el Naoui, without charge six hours later.

Law 91-19 improperly restricts the right to peaceful assembly by making it unlawful to hold or attend any public gatherings that don't have Interior Ministry approval. The ministry rarely approves any gathering that involves criticism of the government. Penal code article 97 criminalizes the organization of participation in unauthorized gatherings, even when peaceful, and imposes a penalty of up to one year in prison for demonstrating in public spaces.

These articles breach Algeria's obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, both of which require Algeria to protect freedom of assembly. Article 21 of the ICCPR states:

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

“The Algerian government should be promoting workers' rights, not using outdated laws to crack down on those who dare to engage in peaceful protests,” Goldstein said.

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