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Pro-autonomy Algerian activists detained, could face death penalty

A Mozabite Berber man reacts at a damaged workshop after clashes between Arabs and Mozabits in Guerrara near Ghardaia, Algeria July 9, 2015
A Mozabite Berber man reacts at a damaged workshop after clashes between Arabs and Mozabits in Guerrara near Ghardaia, Algeria July 9, 2015

REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 25 August 2015.

Algerian authorities should release or try within a reasonable time in a fair and open trial a pro-Amazigh activist, Kameleddine Fekhar, and his 24 co-defendants, Human Rights Watch said today. Fekhar has since 2013 called for autonomy of the Mzab, a northern Sahara region, and has condemned the government for what he called complicity in crimes against humanity by Sunni Arabs against the Amazigh, or Berber, ethnic minority in the region.

All have been in pretrial detention since July 9, 2015. They face the same charges, which include participating in a terrorist act and inciting hatred, for their alleged role in violent confrontations between the Amazigh and the Arab communities on July 7 in the Mzab. The accused, all from the region, could face the death penalty.

“If the government has evidence that Fekhar played a real role in the tragically violent events and is not being held merely for his strong views, it should produce the evidence in open court,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “If not, it should release him.”

Fekhar headed the Algerian League for Human Rights chapter in the town of Ghardaia from 2004 to 2014. In late 2013, he founded the Movement for the Autonomy of the Mzab. Most or all of his co-defendants are believed to be supporters of this cause.

Noureddine Ahmine, a defense lawyer for the accused, told Human Rights Watch that the investigative judge has not yet called witnesses or interrogated the accused. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, the police and the prosecution did not disclose to the defense team any evidence of criminal wrongdoing in this case. Authorities should promptly disclose to the accused and their lawyers any incriminating evidence against them.

The police arrested the 25 at Fekhar's house in Ghardaia. After they spent six days in police detention, a public prosecutor in the first instance court of Ghardaia brought the 18 charges against them. An investigative judge issued an order for their pretrial detention. The group was transferred to the Ménéa prison, 270 kilometers south of Ghardaia. The pretrial investigation continues.

The inter-communal violence that erupted in July – the latest such episode in an ethnically tense region – left 25 people dead and more than 70 injured, from both communities, most from gunfire. The two communities have clashed sporadically over property, land ownership, and other issues. Fekhar, in a TV interview, accused Algerian security forces of standing by without intervening during attacks on the Mozabites, as the region's Amazigh are known.

During an earlier round of ethnic clashes, in November 2013, Mozabites in the city of Guerrara accused the security forces of torturing at least 10 people who had been detained. Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Algerian authorities in October 2014 to inquire about investigations into the complaint the 20 men filed with the prosecutor of the First Instance Tribunal in Ghardaia. Human Rights Watch did not receive a reply.

On July 2, 2015, Fekhar addressed a letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon requesting UN intervention to protect against what he called “the apartheid and ethnic cleansing” practiced by the Algerian government against the Mozabite community. On July 11, Ahmed Ouyahya, cabinet chief for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, during a public meeting, accused “those who have addressed requests for foreign intervention to the United Nations” of being behind the violence in Ghardaia.

Ahmine, the lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that a police report in the case file stated that the police arrested Fekhar and the 24 others on July 9 because of information that they were gathering that day and might be instigating further violence in the region.

The grave charges brought against the accused include committing subversive acts of terrorism targeting the state security, national unity, and territorial integrity; forming a criminal gang to commit crimes; murder with premeditation; harming the integrity of the national territory; distributing material harmful to the national interest; participating in an armed gathering; participating in a non-armed gathering; and defamation against state institutions, respectively under articles 87bis, 176, 255, 79, 96, 97, and 146 of the penal code.

On July 16, Fekhar started a hunger strike. At his hearing before the accusation chamber on August 2 he was too weak to speak, Ahmine said. The court rejected a defense motion to grant Fekhar and the other 24 codefendants provisional pretrial release.

Algeria is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 9 states, “Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release.” The article also says that “it shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody,” though release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial.

The Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in 1999, also say that “unless there is sufficient evidence that deems it necessary to prevent a person arrested on a criminal charge from fleeing, interfering with witnesses or posing a clear and serious risk to others, States must ensure that they are not kept in custody pending their trial.”

The same principles mandate the authorities to inform the person detained of details of the charge or applicable law and the alleged facts on which the charge is based, sufficient to indicate the substance of the complaint against the accused. They further say that the accused must be informed in a manner that would allow the person to prepare a defense and to take immediate steps to secure their release.

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