Human Rights

Simmering Anger Could Dash Algiers' Hopes For An Uneventful Referendum

North Africa

Algiers-based Lawyer and human rights activist Mustapha Bouchachi said, “Since about a year and a half ago, the judiciary has become a tool in the hands of the system. What is happening is very dangerous."

ALGIERS – Algerian authorities are sparing no effort to hold a popular referendum on the constitution uneventfully.

They would like to avoid repeating the scenario of the presidential elections that took place last December. But these efforts are not guaranteed to succeed because of public anger and street tensions caused by the government’s increasingly tough stance towards the opposition and lawyers’ protests.

Political and human rights activists denounced the sentences issued by the courts in Bejaia and Bordj Bou Arreridj against opposition political activists Khaled Tazaghart and Ibrahim Laalami, considering these sentences to be counterproductive to creating an atmosphere of calm and stability required for any voting occasion, and representing new evidence of authorities’ continued policy of repression and restrictions on its opponents.

The coordination committee for the Defence of Prisoners of Conscience described the sentences as “cruel, exaggerated and surprising,” and considered them “a new episode in the series of suppressing political freedoms in the country, despite the raised voices calling for calming the situation and listening to the demands of the street for comprehensive political change in the country.”

As authorities continue to mobilise their support base, including partisan and social groups, in order to promote the new constitution, they are from time to time surprised by the explosion of landmines strewn here and there in the form of angry public reactions denouncing the unfair, tough sentences issued successively against opposition political activists. In addition to this tension, the authorities now have to face a wave of protests by lawyers that are spreading from the capital to the rest of the country.

Following a second vigil that was recently held in the Capital Judicial Council (Court of Appeals) to denounce the incident against lawyer Abdelmadjid Selini, president of Algiers’ bar association, and to call for the independence of the judiciary from the increasing control of the executive authority, the National Federation of Lawyers Organisations decided to boycott judicial work at the national level for two days starting September 30.

The escalation is bound to disrupt the work of the judiciary. A similar step had previously been taken for a week by lawyers working in Algiers. The move unveiled the political backgrounds of the growing tug of war between the authorities and lawyers, due to what was described as “using the judiciary to settle political scores, and to suppress and restrict individual and collective freedoms, turning a mere Facebook post into reason enough to go after its writer and throw him in jail.”

In a public statement, the union stated that “the actions of the President of the First Criminal Court under the jurisdiction of the Capital Judiciary Council, towards the defence committee and the President of the Bar Association in Algiers, Abdelmadjid Selini, were irresponsible.”

“The incident in the trial session of businessman Mourad Oulami represents a serious breach that could have been avoided had the judge decided to adjourn the session and apply Article 25 of the Law providing for lawyer rights. The Minister of Justice has to implement this article and refer the whole file of the case to the National Appeals Committee,” the statement said.

It also pointed out that “the right to legal representation and defence is sacred and cannot be tampered with whatever the circumstances may be, and that the generalisation of video-conferencing of trials strips justice of its human dimension and should not be resorted to except in rare and exceptional cases, since all defendants have the right to appear in person before the judicial authority and interact with it.”

Slogans raised during the lawyers’ protest in Algiers, such as, “A civil state, not a military one,” “The people want an independent judiciary,” and “Zaghmati out,” demonstrate the link between these protests and the political demands raised by the popular Hirak movement that began last year.

Nevertheless, doubts surfaced on social media networks about the real backgrounds of the lawyers’ movement. Comments and reactions on social media linked the lawyers’ protest to the influence of remaining pockets of the previous regime, meant to disrupt  current authorities’ efforts, embodied in the many strides completed by the current Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati in the fight against corruption and corrupt figures of the regime of former President Abdulaziz Bouteflika.

Lawyer and human rights activist Mustapha Bouchachi said, “Since about a year and a half ago, the judiciary has become a tool in the hands of the system … what is happening is very dangerous. Hundreds of people have been arrested, convicted and unjustly imprisoned, by means of this policy.”

Bouchachi expressed his regret that the recently amended penal code authorises judges to force defendants to undergo remote trials, which is a serious violation of the principle of fair trial and the constitution.

For her part, lawyer and political activist, Zoubida Assoul said that “people had believed that the regime would change with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s departure, but Bouteflika had gone and left behind figures and personalities from the former regime who are still loyal to him… The current regime is using the same practices of exclusion and infringing upon freedoms.”

The judiciary had already experienced several tremors following Bouteflika’s departure in April 2019 under popular pressure, and lawyers have been one of the sources fuelling the popular Hirak for more than a year now. The judges’ syndicate also sympathised with the Hirak at the time, which had confused the military leadership which was in charge of running the country during the transition phase. A return of the syndicate’s role at this stage may spoil authorities’ plan to hold a referendum without any noise or hitches, in light of a possible spread of the protests to other professional sectors.

Article: The Arab Weekly

Image: AFP