Algerian dissidents: Victims of crackdown, or outlaws?
Mohamed Benhalima looks as wary and frightened as he is led off a plane at Algiers airport, handcuffed with a security officer’s arm wrapped around him. A team from Algeria’s Rapid Intervention Force then puts him in their vehicle and whisks him to an unknown destination.
The video was posted online on March 24. Three days later, Algerians watched on television as the 32-year-old confessed to involvement with an organization that authorities have listed as an Islamist terrorist group plotting against the Algerian government.
Once a faithful servant of his homeland as a non-commissioned army officer, Benhalima became a supporter of Algeria’s pro-democracy movement, then a deserter who fled to Europe. Spain expelled him after Algeria issued a warrant for his arrest.
The confession scene was made public by Algeria’s General Directorate of National Security, in what could be seen as a warning to other soldiers or citizens.
Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been jailed for trying to keep alive the Hirak movement that held weekly pro-democracy protests starting in 2019, leading to the downfall of longtime Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The marches were banned last year by the nation’s army-backed government.
Authorities then expanded their sweep, linking some Hirak supporters to two groups added to Algeria’s terror list last year: Rachad, regarded as Islamist infiltrators whose leaders are in Europe, and MAK, a separatist movement in Kabylie, home of the Berbers.
“For the last two or three years, there have been thousands of legal cases against activists,” said well-known lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi. “Their only error is that they expressed their political opinions on social media … and are fighting for a state of law.”
For authorities of the gas-rich North African nation, guaranteeing the stability of the state is at the heart of their actions. For human rights groups, Benhalima and others are victims of an unjust, antiquated system of governance that views dissidents, or any critical voices, as criminals. They say that Algerian authorities use threats to national security to stifle free speech, including among journalists, and justify arrests.
A campaign on social media, with the hashtag #PasUnCrime (not a crime) was launched May 19 by dozens of non-governmental organizations against repression of human rights.
The U.S. State Department’s 2021 report on human rights in Algeria cited a long list of problems, including arbitrary arrests and detentions and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association. In March, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, asked Algeria to “change direction” to “guarantee the right of its people to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
“To be a human rights activist in Algeria has become very difficult,” said Zaki Hannache, a Hirak militant recently temporarily released from prison. “To be an activist who refuses the system is complicated. It even means sacrifices.”
Hannache, best known for keeping track of Hirak-related arrests, was arrested and jailed in February on a string of charges, including defending terrorist acts.
The alleged confession of Benhalima captures the combination of evils that Algeria claims it is up against. He said that he was under the spell of Rachad and in contact with its London-based leader and his two brothers. The official APS news agency said Benhalima confirmed “the implication of the terrorist organization Rachad in abject plans targeting the stability of Algeria and its institutions by exploiting misguided youth.”
Rachad’s website claimed the police video showed the forced confession of a “hostage” in a security services propaganda exercise.
Rachad’s true goals are unclear, but it is a key target of Algeria’s crackdown. In December, Rachad said it had submitted a complaint to a U.N. special rapporteur over Algeria’s “arbitrary” classification of the group as a terrorist organization and asked U.N. authorities to urge Algeria to cease its “illegal practices.”
Spain expelled Benhalima based on national security interests and activities “that may harm Spain’s relations with other countries,” according to Amnesty International. Spain expelled another deserter, Mohamed Abdellah, a dissident gendarme, to Algeria last August. Amnesty International described him as a whistleblower.
Spain has a special interest in remaining on good terms with Algeria, which provides much of its gas needs.
According to the National Committee for Freedom for the Detained, some 300 people are behind bars in Algeria for their political opinions. Up to 70 were given provisional freedom at the the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but others have since been arrested.
In a case emblematic for Algerian journalists, the man who heads the outspoken Radio M and the online news site Algerie Emergent, Ihsane El-Kadi, risks three years in prison with a five-year ban on working for allegedly attacking national unity, among other things. He had raised the ire of a former communications minister with a column pleading for the protest movement Hirak not to divide itself over Rachad. The verdict is set for next week.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune recently launched an ill-defined initiative dubbed “outstretched hands,” described as an “internal front” to promote dialogue across all sectors of society. Army chief Said Chengriha suggested in several speeches that it is also to counter Algeria’s perceived enemies. The initiative precedes the July 5 celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence from France, which was won after a brutal seven-year war.
“No one can refuse” to take part in this initiative, said Abou El Fadl Baadji, secretary-general of the National Liberation Front, once Algeria’s sole political party. He was among the officials that Tebboune has recently met with on the subject. People “await with suspense the contents of this initiative … but we’re for this idea, even before knowing the details.”
Benhalima awaits a verdict of his appeal of a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted in absentia for invasion of privacy and attacks on state interests, linked to his online posts on the Algerian military, including confidential information on senior officers.
Lotfi Bouchouchi in Algiers, Algeria, contributed.