On Oct. 10, Abdelwahab Fersaoui, president of the Youth Action Rally (RAJ), a civil society organization heavily involved in Algeria's Hirak protest movement, attended a weekly sit-in as usual, in front of the Sidi Mhamed courthouse, in solidarity with Algerian prisoners of conscience. Shortly before the end of the gathering, a group of plainclothes policemen arrested Fersaoui, who after a two-day disappearance resurfaced in El Harrach prison on Oct. 12.
“We are victims of a campaign of arrests because we are an organization that has invested and contributed a lot to Hirak,” a member of RAJ’s executive board told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity following Fersaoui’s arrest. “Yet, RAJ is not the only target of these arbitrary arrests, but rather the civil society as a whole.”
Fersaoui's detention comes amid an upsurge of repression against prominent leaders and other activists with Hirak, including large-scale arbitrary arrests. Human rights groups and lawyers have denounced the state's actions against those participating in the popular movement sparked in February by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s initial decision to run for a fifth term. The escalation is taking place two months before presidential elections called for Dec. 12 by the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, and pushed for by the army. Bensalah stepped in as acting president in April after Bouteflika finally decided to resign under pressure.
According to the National Committee for the Liberation of the Detainees (CNLD), Algerian authorities detained at least 91 prisoners of conscience between June 21 and Oct. 15 in Algiers alone; they are being held at the El Harrach and Kolea prisons, in the capital. CNLD reports that more than 110 people are currently detained across the country. The Lawyers Collective for Change and Dignity, a group of attorneys representing some of the detainees, told Al-Monitor that the total number of detainees stands around 170.
Among the prominent figures detained are Lakhdar Bouregaa, a veteran of the War of Independence and a founding member of the Socialist Forces Front; Karim Tabbou, spokesperson for the Democratic and Social Union; and Fodil Boumala and Samir Belarbi, both well-known activists.
Kaci Tansaout, CNLD coordinator, remarked to Al-Monitor, “Since Friday, Sept. 13, it is no longer ‘arrests’ but rather kidnappings of known and identified persons, either before a march or at the end of a sit-in in support of detainees.”
Alarmed by the increasing targeting of activists, a group of lawyers representing the Hirak detainees held a press conference on Oct. 7 in Algiers to denounce the instrumentalization of the justice system by the ruling elite and a number of legal irregularities. The lawyers highlighted arrests outside the legal framework, abuse of pre-trial detention, the disproportionate concentration of detentions in Algiers and denying detainees the right to contact their family or a lawyer. Aissa Rahmoune, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights and member of the Lawyers Collective for Change and Dignity, told Al-Monitor, “The [process] is abusive.”
The detainees have mainly been arrested on the grounds of allegedly violating Articles 75, 79 and 96 of the penal code, respectively, undermining the morale of the army, undermining the integrity of the national territory and publishing content undermining the national interest. Fersaoui, for instance was charged with violating the first two articles. The detainees’ deny the charges, asserting that they are politically motivated.
“These are all arbitrary arrests and provisional detentions,” Tansaout said. He explained that thus far, the CNLD has confirmed six cases with sentences ranging from three months to a year. The first was that of Semmani Amazigh, who was sentenced to one year in prison on Oct. 9 for “profanation of the national emblem.” He was not arrested during a protest, but after taking a picture with an Amazigh (Berber) flag while on a tourist trip.
Many detainees have been arrested for carrying the Amazigh flag during protests and later accused of undermining the integrity of the national territory, a violation that carries a prison term of one to 10 years and a fine between 3,000 and 70,000 Algerian dinars ($25 to $600).
The detainees are said to be held in poor conditions, and at least one of them, Tabbou, is in isolation, according to human rights groups. “The information provided by the lawyers of detainees of conscience states that conditions of incarceration are very precarious or even degrading,” Amina Haddad, a member of the Network to Combat Repression, which advocates on behalf of detainees of conscience and democratic freedoms, told Al-Monitor.
“Some sleep on the floor, while others complain of limited rations of water,” Haddad said. “Other reports indicate that the minimum hygienic conditions [are not met] … while some [claim] to be victims of medical negligence.”
“The conditions of incarceration are inhuman,” Rahmoune asserted. “The state of health of many detainees is deteriorating.”
A group of detainees held in El Harrach announced a hunger strike on Oct. 4 against the advice of lawyers, who argued that the regime would not be moved by their deaths. As of Oct. 14, a group of seven detainees were thought to be on a hunger strike. Meanwhile, Al-Monitor has learned that other detainees are considering a hunger strike to start Nov. 1 if the pre-trial detentions of those arrested on June 21 and June 28 are renewed, a situation that would then characterize the status of most of the prisoners. Nov. 1 is also the anniversary of the start of the Algerian War of Independence.
People close to the detainees say that those being held are keeping their morale up and maintain support for Hirak. “At each visit from the lawyers, they send messages asking us to continue the struggle until the fall of the regime,” Tansaout said.
The RAJ activist stated, “At RAJ, we are directly affected by the arrests because we already have nine activists behind bars…, but those in jail always ask us to remain mobilized, keep up the struggle and not to worry about them. This is what gives us the courage and resolve [to persevere].”
The surge in detainees is part of a broader crackdown by the regime, which has gradually shifted from a rather passive stance during the peak of the protests in the spring to a more heavy-handed approach.
“After 34 weeks of massive popular protests throughout the country, the government is deploying a [broad] strategy to counteract the peaceful revolution, including intimidation and prevention of free movement, but also, and mainly, by the exploitation of the judiciary as a tool of repression,” Haddad argued. “Another manoeuver of the government to try to weaken or stop the popular movement is to exert pressure on the editorial offices of the public and private media, including over coverage of popular demonstrations.”
Many interpret the upsurge in repression as a way for the regime to maintain its grip on power and divide or crush the popular movement after having established a road map with the December elections, which Hirak rejects conducting under the existing conditions.
“Over the past weeks, and more precisely since the call for elections, the military high command has increased the repression on political activists, human rights activists, NGOs, students and independents. In short, the new young leadership that would most likely take over the new Algeria,” Rachid Tlemcani, a professor of international politics and regional security at the University of Algiers, told Al-Monitor.
Despite the increasing repression, Hirak continues to hold weekly demonstrations against the ruling elite. On Oct. 11, tens of thousands marched in Algiers with the freeing of detainees among their main demands.
“Today, the release of prisoners of conscience is at the heart of the demands of the popular movement, which is repeating, in each protest, its unconditional solidarity with the detainees and their families,” Haddad stated.