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February 10, 2019

Ongoing Harassment of Civil Society Threatens Democratic Transition in Algeria

In January 2019, Algerian activist Ahmed Manseri was prosecuted in connection with his allegedly false claim that he had been tortured by the police. Although the court ultimately acquitted Mr. Manseri, the trial was marred by violations of international fair trial standards and the state has yet to adequately respond to his credible account of abuse. Meanwhile, the threat of state persecution remains. Exacerbating this risk, there are indications that the prosecution may have been initiated due to Mr. Manseri’s human rights advocacy. Troublingly, Mr. Manseri’s lawyer, Salah Dabouz, has now also been subjected to harassment at the hands of the state.

A report on the proceedings against Mr. Manseri - which were monitored by the Center for Human Rights as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch project - is forthcoming, but it is imperative to speak up now. Algeria’s transition to democracy will flounder if the country does not permit advocates like Mr. Manseri and Mr. Dabouz to undertake their human rights work without fear of reprisal. 

Prior to the case, Mr. Manseri had been a frequent target of state harassment. He formerly served 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. 

In the proceedings monitored by the Center, Mr. Manseri faced criminal defamation charges for speaking out about abuses purportedly committed by the security forces, including his alleged torture. Over the course of the hearing, the Center noted several fair trial violations, including the fact that Mr. Manseri’s attorney was not permitted access to the case file until roughly 20 minutes before the hearing began.  

Moreover, it seems that the prosecution may have been aimed not only at shutting down Mr. Manseri’s allegations regarding torture but also at stifling his broader human rights work. Mr. Manseri’s lawyer Salah Dabouz stated that the criminal complainant - the local police chief - threatened him over the course of the case, labeling Dabouz a foreign agent for defending Manseri and warning Dabouz that he would “keep an eye” on him and his family.  Heightening concerns about abuse of process, the police chief explicitly testified that human rights activism constituted a “threat to state security” and cited Mr. Manseri’s general advocacy activities as evidence of defamation. Mr. Manseri’s speech regarding the Algerian government’s human rights record is worthy of the highest level of protection. The possibility that such speech may have spurred Mr. Manseri’s prosecution is concerning.

While Mr. Manseri was acquitted during the proceeding monitored by the ABA Center for Human Rights, the specter of state harassment continues to hang over Mr. Manseri’s head. He is currently facing additional criminal charges related to his human rights work and was called in for questioning by the security services soon after the judgment. Mr. Manseri has since fled Algeria out of fear of further persecution. Mr. Manseri’s lawyer Salah Dabouz - already threatened during Mr. Manseri’s case - has reportedly been criminally charged in connection with his defense of various human rights advocates and subjected to “judicial control” measures, meaning that he must present himself at a court some 600 kilometres from his home three times a week. Most recently, reports have emerged that Mr. Dabouz was beaten by security forces while participating in a peaceful protest and subsequently detained for several hours.

The Center notes that 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 ….”

Disregard for such norms was typical of the two-decade reign of Algeria’s former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who regularly cracked down on criticism of his regime, restricting the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. It is deeply concerning that - despite Bouteflika’s recent resignation in the face of mass protests - this pattern of harassment has persisted for Mr. Manseri and Mr. Dabouz. Going forward, lasting democratic change in Algeria will depend on significant legal reform: among other things, refraining from targeting advocates like Mr. Manseri and Mr. Dabouz on spurious grounds.

A full TrialWatch Fairness Report on Mr. Manseri’s case will be released soon.