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Is Tebboune’s Algeria more repressive than Bouteflika’s?

By Farid Alilat
Posted on Friday, 2 July 2021 10:28

Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune on 13 December 2019 in Algiers © Fateh Guidoum/AP/SIPA

Although Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has given assurances that the Abdelaziz Bouteflika years are in the past, the opposition is being targeted now more than ever before.

A few years ago, simply mentioning the name of the Antar barracks under the control of the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSI) was enough to frighten any political opponent, whatever their political affiliation. Although little is known about what goes on inside the walls of this centre located within the Algiers mountains, the few testimonies that have filtered out about the living conditions and interrogation techniques used are enough to scare anyone.

Last February, the barracks was at the heart of an alleged torture and abuse case in which Walid Nekiche, a student, was the main victim. He claims to have been detained there in 2019, during which he was interrogated in utmost secrecy for a week, before being brought before a judge and placed in preventive detention.

The Walid Nekiche affair, which rose to prominence after the student testified before the judge, elicited such uproar in Algeria and abroad, that the civil justice system decided to open its own investigation before the Blida military court had a chance to do so.

An iron grip

This student’s case has brought the Antar barracks to the public eye and worsened its reputation as a place of extrajudicial detention. General Wassini Bouazza – former head of the DGSI – and Colonel Yacine – who headed the centre at the time Nekiche was detained there – are now serving long sentences in the Blida military prison for the crimes of bodily injury and forgery and use of forgeries.

The recent events – that took place on the eve of the 12 June legislative elections – once again shed a harsh light on the Antar barracks, which has become a symbol of repression for demonstrators, politicians, journalists and human rights activists.

Political parties that have been operating since the advent of pluralism in 1989, as well as associations that have been active for some 20 years, are now under threat of dissolution.

El Kadi Ihsane and Khaled Drareni, journalists who are both known for their involvement in the Hirak protest movement, were arrested on 10 June. They were held and interrogated in the barracks for more than 30 hours before being released.

According to testimonies, the hearings for the duo took place in a rather cordial atmosphere, without constraint or violence. However, the DGSI officers’ questions, requests and methods of interrogation speak volumes about the authorities’ desire to maintain an iron grip on opponents.

The day-to-day accounts from the Comité National pour la Libération des Détenus (CNLD) shed light on the repressive shift that has taken place since the Hirak protests resumed in February, after a one-year lull due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

300 prisoners of conscience

According to data updated by the association, which was created in August 2019, there are now nearly 300 prisoners of conscience in various prisons throughout the country. On 27 June, four activists from the pro-independence Mouvement pour l’Auto-Détermination de la Kabylie were placed under arrest on charges related to “belonging to a terrorist organisation”, “undermining national unity” and “inciting hatred”.

On the same day, the former government minister Nordine Aït Hamouda – son of Colonel Amirouche, one of the heroes of the revolution – was incarcerated in El Harrach prison for “attacking the symbols of the state and the revolution, attacking a former president of the republic, undermining national unity, inciting hatred and racial discrimination”. In an interview with the private channel Al Hayat TV, Hamouda had described emir Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine, another figure of Algerian nationalism, as a “traitor”.

Algeria hasn’t seen such a large wave of arrests and incarcerations, which have increased since the Hirak protests resumed in February, in two decades. Under the deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime, activists who opposed his fourth presidential term in 2014 were repressed, hunted down and spied on; but they weren’t thrown in prison.

In February 2011, demonstrations organised in Algiers to demand an end to the regime – in the wake of revolts that led to the fall of Tunisia’s president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak – were suppressed, although the protesters involved were not imprisoned. The Algerian authorities often used terms like “democratic crowd management” to refer to non-coercive means that were used to muzzle the opposition.

This peaceful period did not last long

Today, preventive detention indiscriminately affects dissenting voices, including journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, students, politicians and activists from civil society. The range of charges against has grown over the past few months and often leads to detention warrants, including offences against national unity, incitement to unauthorised assembly, obstruction of voting operations, civil disobedience, foreign financing and crimes related to information and communication technologies. This has led one lawyer to say that pre-trial detention has become the rule, rather than the exception.

However, this policy of almost zero tolerance was preceded by a more conciliatory and less coercive attitude. On his return to Algiers in February after a long convalescence in Germany, where he underwent minor surgery on his foot following treatment for Covid-19, Tebboune demonstrated a desire to reconcile, as he granted a presidential pardon to around 60 prisoners of conscience, even though the government has rejected the use of this term.

In the wake of the announcement of these releases, the head of state made sure to laud Hirak, which he described as a blessed popular movement that had rid the country of the Issaba (the mafia) and prevented the collapse of the state.

This peaceful period did not last long. The declared desire to calm the debate, reduce political and social tensions, as well as minimise pressure and criticism of the judicial system, quickly gave way to a policy of firmness. This coincided with the resumption of the Tuesday and Friday marches which drew hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in Algiers.

Snubs

Week after week, demonstrators question President Tebboune’s legitimacy; demand an end to the current system and for a transition period to be installed; target the military and question the secret services’ management of the anti-terrorist struggle during the country’s ‘black decade’. The head of state, who repeats over and over again that his project to establish a ‘new Algeria’ is on the right track, feels that all these demands are many slaps in the face.

Should protesters have been allowed to fill the streets and risk jeopardising the 12 June legislative election? Would it have been fair to allow the protest movement to grow over the weeks leading up to this election, to the point of becoming unmanageable? The velvet glove has been removed and the iron fist is showing.

Marches are now subject to authorisation from the ministry of the interior; arrests and imprisonments have increased; and  police have been deployed to Algiers to prevent demonstrations. This has stifled the Hirak movement everywhere, except in Kabylia – where thousands of people continue to demonstrate every Friday.

This arrangement seems to be working, insofar as the streets are no longer dominated by protesters and voting operations went smoothly across the country except, again, in the cities of Kabylia – where polling stations were ransacked. This is hardly new in this rebellious region where, for the past 20 years, every election has resulted in many ballot boxes being destroyed. In addition to police presence and the arrests of dozens of oppositionists, other measures have been rolled out.

For example, political parties that have been operating since the advent of political pluralism in 1989, as well as associations that have been active for some 20 years, are now under threat of dissolution. Again, actions such as these would have been unheard of under the Bouteflika regime.

Even though the former president refused to grant approval to a handful of political parties founded by former ministers – such as Ahmed Taleb Ibrahim and Sid Ahmed Ghozali – he did not go so far as to ban groups that have been part of the political landscape for the past three decades.

New arsenal

The latest addition to this policy, which consists of tightening the noose around dissenting voices, includes recent amendments to the legal system for fighting terrorism. One such revision was drawing up a national list of terrorists and terrorist entities.

The new text refers to any “terrorist act or sabotage, any act aimed at state security, national unity and the stability and normal functioning of institutions by any action aimed at”, in particular, “working or inciting, by any means whatsoever, to gain access to power or to change the system of governance by non-constitutional means”, or “undermining or inciting the integrity of the national territory by any means whatsoever”.

Political parties and human rights activists fear that, under the guise of fighting subversion, the various possible interpretations of this new arsenal could lead to judicial abuses or arbitrary arrests, given the vagueness of the wording in the text. The expression ‘new Algeria’ may be a government buzzword, but it certainly does not appear to be the one that Algerians expected after the fall of Bouteflika.

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