The Algerian authorities must end their relentless efforts to silence peaceful protesters, said Amnesty International ahead of the start of the trial tomorrow of four protesters from the southern city of Ouargla who are facing up to a year in prison for taking part in protests against unemployment in Algeria’s oil capital, Hassi Messaoud.
Prominent activist Tahar Belabes, a member of the National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC), and three other CNDDC members have been charged with taking part in “unarmed gatherings” in 2015. If convicted, all four men could face up to a year in jail.
“Imprisoning Tahar Belabes and his colleagues simply for taking part in peaceful protests would be an outrageous attack on the right to freedom of expression and assembly. Their only ‘crime’ appears to be that they stood up for the rights of the unemployed. They should not even be on trial – let alone facing a possible prison term. The charges against them should be dropped immediately,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.
If imprisoned, Amnesty International would consider the four men prisoners of conscience jailed solely for exercising their right to peaceful expression and assembly. The protesters were calling for oil and gas companies based in Hassi Messaoud – including branches of the state-owned Sonatrach – to employ more Algerians from the mineral-rich south.
Belabes was employed by one of Sonatrach’s subsidiaries in Hassi Messaoud, before being dismissed in February 2015 in apparent reprisal for his activism, and involvement in the unprecedented anti-fracking protests which took place in the south of the country in the first half of 2015. Several people including members of the CNDDC were prosecuted for their involvement in the protests at the time.
The trial begins against a backdrop of mounting repression of peaceful protest across Algeria. Seven peaceful protesters are serving one year prison terms in Tamanrasset, south of the country, for demonstrating against unemployment, against shale gas fracking and in defense of the rights of workers employed in mining companies operating in the area in December 2015. Amnesty International considers them prisoners of conscience.
“The Algerian authorities appear to be increasingly resorting to criminal prosecutions as a means of silencing protesters, signaling a worrying slide towards deeper repression. Rather than jailing peaceful activists the authorities should be responding to their complaints. Increasing repression is not an answer to rising unemployment or the worsening economic situation exacerbated by falling oil prices,” said Mughrabi.
The Algerian authorities rely on an arsenal of repressive laws to quell peaceful dissent. Prior authorization is required to hold public gatherings while an outright ban on public protests remains in place in the capital Algiers. Protests against poverty, unemployment and corruption are frequent in the oil-rich country.