In January 2019, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights monitored criminal proceedings against Algerian human rights defender and blogger Ahmed Manseri as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative.
Given the generally closed nature of the country, few if any other trials have been monitored by international non-governmental organizations in recent years. For two decades, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - who resigned in April in the face of mass protests - cracked down on criticism of his regime, restricting fundamental freedoms such as the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Although the government lifted a longstanding state of emergency in 2011, the human rights situation has not markedly improved. In its 2018 Human Rights Report on Algeria, the U.S. State Department highlighted the continued perpetration of significant violations, stating, “authorities arrested and detained citizens for expressing views deemed damaging to state officials and institutions ... .” Front Line Defenders has likewise tracked the curtailment of freedoms in Algeria, noting that human rights activists regularly face “harassment, threats, physical attacks, arbitrary detention, and legal proceedings.”
Mr. Manseri serves as head of the Tiaret city section of the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights), an independent association that documents human rights violations in Algeria. Over the past decade, Mr. Manseri and his colleagues have reportedly been subjected to frivolous legal allegations on multiple occasions.
In the present case, Mr. Manseri was charged with criminal defamation after filing a complaint against the head of the Tiaret police for assault. The alleged assault occurred in mid-2016, when Mr. Manseri was detained by the police in apparent retaliation for his work as a human rights activist. According to Mr. Manseri, various police officers at the Tiaret station - including the police chief - physically and psychologically abused him, after which he was left bleeding outside. While a criminal court convicted the Tiaret police chief of assault, he was acquitted on appeal. Subsequently, Mr. Manseri was charged with criminal defamation. He was acquitted by both the trial and appellate criminal courts. The Center monitored proceedings before the criminal appellate court, which considered the evidence and arguments presented at trial anew.
Although Mr. Manseri was ultimately acquitted of criminal defamation, Center staff who are members of the TrialWatch Expert Panel and were responsible for evaluating the fairness of the trial noted several fair trial violations. Mr. Manseri was not informed of the factual basis of the allegations against him. Moreover, as observed by the monitor, the court refused to provide Mr. Manseri with a copy of the trial judgment until twenty minutes before the proceeding was set to start.
It also appeared that the monitor’s presence improved the fairness of the hearing. The court was notified in advance of the Center’s intent to send an observer. The monitor reported that all other hearings that took place that day lasted 5-15 minutes, whereas the proceeding against Mr. Manseri was allocated several hours. Correspondingly, according to the monitor, the judge grouped all other cases into batches of 4-5 for deliberation, whereas he afforded Mr. Manseri’s case individual consideration.
This apparently ad hoc treatment of cases raises questions about the arbitrariness of the process provided to Mr. Manseri as well as the fairness of trials in Algeria more broadly. Mr. Manseri is facing additional criminal charges related to his human rights work and if such cases proceed to trial and are not monitored, courts may fail to uphold fair trial standards. Furthermore, the fact that the security services called Mr. Manseri in for questioning soon after the acquittal indicates a persistent threat of harassment. Due to these risks, Mr. Manseri temporarily fled the country.
Additionally, based upon the history of the case, the vagueness of the notice to appear, and the arguments presented on appeal, it seems that the prosecution may have been aimed at stifling Mr. Manseri’s legitimate human rights work. First, according to Mr. Manseri’s counsel, Salah Dabouz, the police chief issued various threats in the wake of the earlier case (where the police chief was first convicted and then acquitted of responsibility for the assault against Mr. Manseri): the chief allegedly proclaimed that Mr. Dabouz was a foreign agent working to undermine the Algerian state and warned counsel that he would “keep an eye” on him and his family. Second, during the monitored proceedings, the police chief testified that human rights activism constituted a “threat to state security.” Third, in court the police chief repeatedly cited Mr. Manseri’s general advocacy activities as evidence of defamation, meaning that the prosecution likely encompassed protected speech relating to Mr. Manseri’s human rights activism. Fourth, as discussed above, Mr. Manseri was not informed of the factual basis for the allegations against him. This failure is both a fair trial violation and an additional indication that Mr. Manseri may have been prosecuted for his efforts to highlight human rights abuses, especially when considered in combination with the police chief’s statements throughout the proceedings.
Human rights defenders and their lawyers must be free to carry out their work absent retaliation and intimidation. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders makes clear the state’s obligation to protect human rights defenders from “any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action … .” Similarly, the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers require that “[g]overnments shall ensure that lawyers are able to perform all their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference … .” Reports that both Mr. Manseri and his lawyer Mr. Dabouz have experienced intimidation by state actors in relation to their work are deeply troubling. Algeria’s new government - propelled into power by demands for reform - must ensure that the rights of human rights defenders and lawyers are respected.