Victims of repression, or outlaws?

PARIS (AP) — Mohamed Benhalima looked alert and frightened as he was taken off a plane at Algiers airport, with the arms of a security officer wrapped around him. A team of Algeria’s Rapid Intervention Force then put him in their vehicle and took him to an unknown destination.

The video was posted online on March 24. Three days later, Algerians saw the 32-year-old man on television admit to being involved in a group classified by authorities as an Islamic terrorist group that was plotting against the Algerian government.

Benhalima was once a faithful servant of his homeland, as a non-commissioned officer, a supporter of the democratic movement in Algeria, and then a deserter who fled to Europe. Spain deported him after Algeria issued an arrest warrant.

The Algerian National Security Service made public the scene of the guilty plea, which could be seen as a warning to other soldiers or citizens.

Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been jailed for trying to maintain the Chirac movement, which has held weekly pro-democracy protests since 2019, leading to the ouster of Algeria’s longtime president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Last year, the country’s army-backed government banned the march.

Authorities then expanded the scan, linking some Chirac supporters to two groups added to Algeria’s terror list last year: Ratchad, believed to be an Islamist infiltrator whose leader is in Europe, and MAK, a Berber Separatist movement in Kabili, the homeland of the Irish.

“In the past two or three years, there have been thousands of legal cases against activists,” said Mustapha Bouchachi, a prominent lawyer. “Their only mistake is that they express their political views on social media … and are fighting for the rule of law.”

For the authorities in the gas-rich North African country, ensuring the country’s stability is at the heart of their operations. For human rights groups, Ben Harima and others are victims of an unjust, antiquated governance system that criminalizes dissidents or any critical voice. They said Algerian authorities used threats to national security to stifle free speech, including among journalists, and defended the arrests.

Dozens of NGOs launched a campaign on social media on May 19, with the hashtag #PasUnCrime (not crime), against the suppression of human rights.

The U.S. State Department’s 2021 report on human rights in Algeria lists a long list of issues, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and association. In March, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet demanded that Algeria “change course” to “guarantee the right of its people to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.

“It has become very difficult to be a human rights activist in Algeria,” said Zaki Hannash, a Chirac militant who was recently temporarily released from prison. “It’s complicated to be an activist who rejects the system. It even means sacrifice.”

Hannache, known for tracking Hirak-related arrests, was jailed in February on a series of charges, including defending acts of terrorism.

Benhalima’s confession allegedly captures the evil combination that Algeria claims it faces. He said he was fascinated by Ratchard and kept in touch with the leader in London and his two brothers. The official APS news agency said Ben Halima confirmed “the influence of the terrorist group Ratchad’s dastardly plan to destabilize Algeria and its institutions by exploiting misguided youth.”

Rachad’s website said police video showed a “hostage” being forced to plead guilty during a security services campaign.

Ratchad’s true target is unclear, but it is a key target of the Algerian crackdown. In December, Rachad said it had submitted a complaint to the UN special rapporteur about Algeria’s “arbitrary” classification of the group as a terrorist organization and asked UN authorities to urge Algeria to stop its “illegal practices”.

According to Amnesty International, Spain expelled Ben Harima based on national security interests and activities that “could damage Spain’s relations with other countries.” Last August, Spain deported to Algeria another deserter, Mohamed Abdellah, a dissident gendarmerie. Amnesty International called him a whistleblower.

Spain is particularly interested in maintaining good relations with Algeria, which supplies most of its gas needs.

According to the National Commission for the Freedom of Detainees, some 300 people in Algeria are being held for political views. As many as 70 people were granted temporary freedom at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but others have been arrested.

In a typical case of an Algerian journalist, Ihsane El-Kadi, the head of outspoken M radio and online news site Algerie Emergent, risks three years in prison and a five-year ban on work for alleged attacks on things like national unity. He has angered a former communications minister in an op-ed calling on the protest movement Chirac not to be divided over Ratchad. Sentencing is scheduled for next week.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune recently launched an ill-defined initiative called “Hands Out”, which has been described as an “internal front” for dialogue across all sectors of society. Army Chief Syed Chengriha said in several speeches that it was also aimed at fighting Algeria’s enemies. The initiative comes ahead of the July 5 celebration of the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, which was won after a brutal seven-year war.

Abu Fader al-Baji, secretary general of the National Liberation Front, once Algeria’s only political party, said “no one can refuse” to participate in the initiative. He was one of the officials Tebboune met recently on the matter. People are “hanging in the air as to what this initiative will contain…but we support the idea, even before the details are known.”

Benhalima is awaiting his appeal sentence of 10 years in prison after being convicted in absentia for invasion of privacy and assault on state interests in connection with his online posts in the Algerian army, including classified information about senior officers.

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Lotfi Bouchouchi in Algiers, Algeria contributed.

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