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Algerian labor rights defender Belkacem Khencha convicted for Facebook video

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 7 June 2016.

An Algerian court sentenced a labor rights defender to six months in prison on May 25, 2016, for posting a video on Facebook criticizing a prison term for a colleague.

Belkacem Khencha, national coordinator of the Algerian League for the Defense of Workers' Rights, criticized the first instance court in the city of Laghouat for sentencing his colleague to 18 months for protesting the government's housing policies. The same court convicted Khencha.

“Algerian courts are not only convicting people who participate in peaceful labor protests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Now they're punishing people who protest against such unfair convictions.”

On January 28, 2015, authorities arrested Khencha and seven other members of the National Committee for the Defense of Unemployed Workers' Rights (Comité national pour la défense des droits des chômeurs, CNDDC), another labor rights' group, when they assembled outside the Laghouat court to protest the trial of Mohamed Rag, another CNDDC activist arrested eight days earlier. On February 11, 2015, the court sentenced the eight to a year in prison, half of it suspended, for an “unauthorized gathering” and “attempting to pressure judges on pending cases” under articles 97 and 147, respectively, of the penal code. Khencha spent six months in prison. Rag, who was sentenced to 18 months, remains in prison.

After his release, Khencha filmed himself talking and posted the video on Facebook on August 20. In it, he explains that he is sitting in front of Rag's house, and that, “We should not forget Rag's case because he is unjustly sentenced and jailed.”

In April 2016, the police went to Khencha's house and told him to go to the police station the same day, he told Human Rights Watch. At the station, the police showed him the video and asked whether he had posted it, and why. He responded that he had made this video to defend his “innocent” friend, and to criticize his conviction as oppressive and unjust.

The court convicted Khencha under penal code article 147, which punishes with up to three years in prison “attempting to pressure judges on pending cases” and “casting discredit on the decisions of the courts.”

Khencha, who is provisionally free, told Human Rights Watch that he will appeal.

The Algerian authorities rely on an arsenal of repressive laws to quell peaceful dissent. Article 146 of the penal code punishes “insults” against state institutions with up to five years in prison. The punishment for distributing, selling, exposing to the public tracts, bulletins, or flyers that “may harm the national interest” is up to three years, and for defaming or insulting the president, up to one year.

Hassan Bouras, a journalist, and Zouleikha Belarbi, a human rights activist, were both convicted and sentenced, the first to prison and the second to fines, recently for insulting state institutions.

In addition, penal code article 97 prohibits unauthorized demonstrations in public spaces, even when peaceful, if they are deemed “capable of disturbing public order.” Articles 98 and 100 impose up to one year in prison for calling for, or participating in, such gatherings.

Authorities successfully prosecuted the eight labor activists in Laghouat under these articles, as well as seven others who were sentenced to a year in prison in October 2015, in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, for demonstrating against unemployment.

Governments may impose certain restrictions on speech to shield courts from improper influence, to preserve the integrity, and in some cases, confidentiality of proceedings, and to maintain the dignity of judicial institutions. However, any such restrictions must be narrowly defined in law so as not to turn any criticism of the judiciary or its decisions into a potentially punishable offense.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on April 23, 2015, in the Morice v. France case, that the European Convention on Human Rights' restrictions on speaking about courts cannot be used to enforce limitations generally on “remarks on the functioning of the judiciary, even in the context of proceedings that are still pending.” The court ruled that it must be possible “to draw the public's attention to potential shortcomings in the justice system.” Protecting the judiciary from unfounded attacks “cannot have the effect of prohibiting individuals from expressing their views, through value judgments with a sufficient factual basis, on matters of public interest related to the functioning of the justice system, or of banning any criticism of the latter.”

In a resolution on Algeria passed on April 28, 2015, the European Parliament noted the increasing government harassment of human rights activists and expressed concern about the “abuse of the judiciary as a tool to stifle dissent in the country.” It urged the Algerian authorities to strictly uphold the independence of the judiciary and to effectively guarantee the right to a fair trial, in line with the Algerian Constitution and international legal standards.

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