In the past days, a wave of arbitrary arrests and unfair court rulings have targeted dozens of representatives of the Algerian Hirak (popular movement) and dissidents.

The Algerian government has stepped up its crackdown against political opponents, as activists are staying confined inside their homes in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Algeria’s government has stepped up its crackdown against political opponents, as activists are staying inside.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced a ban on all gatherings on March 17 over COVID-19 fears. Some critics expressed concerns that the regime would use the prohibition as a pretext to strangle the movement. But the Hirak had independently suspended weekly rallies out of its own public consciousness. There was also sense within the popular resistance group that, if protests were to continue, “Le Pouvoir” (The Power, i.e. government) would blame it for the virus spread and any resulting casualties.

In a statement, the Hirak-linked university group Student Rally for Change (REC) said that marches had to come to a halt so that the “illegitimate regime does not use demonstrations to justify its own failure to contain the epidemic after not taking the necessary measures in time, the lack of prevention awareness campaigns, as well as the weak health system’s inability to provide for those currently infected.”

The streets of Algiers were empty on March 20 for the first time since the start of the protest movement. A month earlier, on February 21, several thousand people rallied in the capital to mark one year of unprecedented demonstrations that had led to the downfall of former long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Few anticipated the repressive actions the regime had embarked on since the suspension of all protests at a time when Hirak leaders and active members have retreated from the scene to reduce the risk of rapid spread of COVID-19.

As of April 14, the disease had killed 329 people and infected 2,070 in Algeria, according to official figures.

Algerian authorities arrested journalist Khaled Drareni on March 29 on charges of  “unlicensed protesting.”

Algerian authorities arrested journalist Khaled Drareni, correspondent for global press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and sentenced him to imprisonment on March 29 on charges of “unlicensed protesting” and “incitement against national unity.” The accusations stemmed from his coverage of anti-government protests in Algeria. The authorities handed down the sentence despite Algeria’s courts being closed due to coronavirus concerns. Neither the RSF reporter nor his lawyer were present for the sentencing.

Police have arrested Drareni several times for covering the protests held in the capital Algiers every Friday since February 2019. RSF’s North Africa branch denounced in a tweet “the shameless use of COVID-19 by the Algerian regime to settle scores with free and independent journalism.”

An Algerian court handed prominent dissident and key opposition leader, Karim Tabbou, a one-year prison sentence on March 24, charging him with “incitement to violence” and “harming national security” in relation to a speech he shared on his political party’s Facebook page criticizing the role of the army in politics. He has become one of the most leading figures in the protest movement that forced Bouteflika to resign. Human rights lawyers deplored the court’s verdict, saying Tabbou had been unable to defend himself after collapsing during a hearing which his lawyers had not known of.

“At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has governments worldwide considering early prisoner releases, the Algerian authorities must immediately release all those imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights,” Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, Heba Morayef, stated responding to the court’s decision.

Tabbou was arrested in September 2019 and has been in prolonged solitary confinement ever since. He is due to appear in court again on April 27.

President Tebboune signed a decree pardoning 5,037 prisoners on April 1, but it did not include dozens of political detainees.

President Tebboune signed a decree granting pardon to 5,037 prisoners on April 1, but the amnesty did not include the dozens of political detainees, nor Hirak supporters.

A campaign of arrests and trials is affecting a number of Algerian opposition figures in the middle of the current standstill observed by activists who remain quarantined for now.

Militant Ibrahim Daoudji, who was imprisoned several times on political grounds, currently faces charges of “insulting statutory body” and distributing flyers that undermine national unity. He has been on hunger strike since March 16 and is at risk of dying. He got six months’ imprisonment on April 9.

Activist Samir Belarbi has been under a warrant of committal since March 7 as an Algerian indictment chamber rejected his lawyers’ request for a temporary release on March 25. During a prior arrest in September 2019, Belarbi spent three months in prison for “infringement of the territorial integrity” and “dissemination or detention of publications causing harm to the national interest.”

Likewise, Slimane Hamitouche, National Coordinator of the Missing Persons’ Families National Coordination (CNFD), has been in jail since March 7 with accusations of “infringement of the territorial integrity” and “inciting crowds.” The court also confirmed his arrest warrant on March 25. Hamitouche has been a tireless figure of the Hirak movement. He had not missed any protests since February 2019.

Journalist Sofiane Marrakchi faces allegations of “concealing equipment” and providing protest images to foreign media.

Sofiane Marrakchi, correspondent for Lebanese TV channel Al-Mayadeen, remains in prison for violating customs laws. In pre-trial detention since September 2019, he faces allegations of “concealing equipment” and providing images of protests to Al-Jazeera and other foreign media. A court in Algiers handed him an eight-month sentence on April 5. He was the first Algerian journalist to be arrested since the Hirak’s existence, according to the Article 19 freedom of expression NGO.

Moreover, another court convicted Abdelouhab Fersaoui, who heads the civic group Youth Action Rally (RAJ), to one year in prison on April 6. Police arrested him in October 2019 during a gathering held in support of prisoners of conscience. He is another leading figure in the Hirak.

The National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD) estimated the number of detainees to be at least 1,200 in Algerian prisons. By March 31, the prisoners’ support group counted 45 people detained for their links to the Hirak protest movement.

“They [authorities] have turned on the opportunity to crack down on activists and journalists from the Hirak,” Tamara Hartin, a Canadian-Australian rights activist living in Algeria, told Inside Arabia.

“They try who they want to try, they suspend trials for whom they want to suspend . . . they do justice at whim—there is no justice.”

“They try who they want to try, they suspend trials for whom they want to suspend,” she added, “they do justice at whim—there is no justice.”

An Algerian human rights militant, Rabah Arkam, addressed a letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres, on March 28, in an effort to draw international attention to Algeria’s increased use of detentions and sentences against political opponents and journalists.

Civil society groups say authorities are making arrests while the international community is distracted, thus exploiting the coronavirus crisis to punish the Hirak leadership and critical voices at large.

Hartin remarked that Algerians have tried every possible way to get the regime to “diplomatically cede” its power, however the ruling elite has refused to allow legitimate elected individuals to represent the people.

“It’s a complete divorce between the Algerian government and the people. The rift has become too deep now,” Hartin said.

Tamara Hartin believes that the citizens protest movement, which was only forced by health concerns to stop the demonstrations, will “re-surge” once the pandemic is over as activists are ready to go back out on the streets.



Operation COVID Crackdown: The Middle East’s Prosecution of Press Freedom