Five international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, on Monday called on Algerian authorities to “drop their effort to dissolve a prominent civil society group over alleged violation of the law on associations.”
An administrative court is set to issue a ruling on October 13, 2021, in a case brought by the Interior Ministry against the Youth Action Rally (known by its French name Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse, or RAJ).
The court of Bir Mourad Rais in Algiers on September 29 examined a petition to dissolve RAJ, claiming the group’s “political” activities violated the purposes set forth in its own bylaws. RAJ leaders deny the charge and contend that the authorities have targeted the association because of its support of the pro-democracy Hirak movement, which began in 2019.
The five rights groups are Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies, the International Federation of Human Rights, and MENA Rights Group.
“Seeking to outlaw one of the foremost civil society associations on spurious grounds is yet another attempt to crush the Hirak,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This move comes amid ongoing arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of activists and journalists, and roundups of protesters.”
Algerian security forces have regularly cracked down on individuals and groups associated with the Hirak protest movement, which has been mobilizing large numbers of protesters since February 2019. The protesters, demanding democratic reforms, continued to take to the streets after former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in April 2019 and Abdelmadjid Tebboune succeeded him seven months later, after a contested election.
RAJ was created in 1992 to “promote cultural activities, human rights and the values of citizenship,” according to its bylaws. It became known for its local grassroots mobilization among Algerian youth.
RAJ openly supported the Hirak; its headquarters became a meeting point and debate venue for activists. In 2019, RAJ co-founded the Pact for a Democratic Alternative, a collective of opposition parties, civil society groups, labor union members, lawyers, and intellectuals. The Pact rejected the election of Tebboune and urged a deep reform of state institutions. The authorities have prosecuted 11 of its members, imprisoning at least nine of its leaders and activists for speech offenses at various times since 2019 and banned some of its activities, such as a summer school in August 2019.
“RAJ’s dissolution would be a new low for freedom of association in Algeria,” said Nadège Lahmar, Maghreb researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). “By targeting a youth organization supportive of the Hirak, authorities are seeking to silence independent and peaceful voices.”
On May 26, RAJ announced that it had been notified of a petition submitted by the Interior Ministry to an administrative court requesting the group’s dissolution. The petition claims that the group had engaged in activities “different from those it was created for,” that it had “initiated and conducted suspicious activities with foreigners,” “contributed to inciting citizens to assemble without authorization,” and “adopted strategies of a political nature for the purpose of creating chaos and disturbing the public order.”
“The Interior Ministry’s accusation that RAJ violated the law is based on the everyday public activities that RAJ has carried out during the Hirak, such as forums, debates, and citizen initiatives … alongside millions of Algerians in order to find a unifying and consensual way out of the crisis,” RAJ President Abdelouahab Fersaoui told Human Rights Watch.
Algeria’s Law on Associations of 2012 provides in article 43 that the authorities can seek a court ruling to dissolve an association “when it exercises activities other than those provided in its bylaws.” The government’s petition also cites article 13, which states that “associations are distinct from political parties, in terms of their objectives, names and functioning, and may not engage in any type of relation with the latter.” The authorities contend that the group “adopted strategies of a political nature” by maintaining relations with two opposition political parties, called for and participated in marches in 2019, and chanted slogans demanding a “democratic and free Algeria.” The petition also claims that RAJ constitutes a “danger to national sovereignty, the state’s foreign policy and public order and security.”
Article 2 of the Association Law states the objectives of an association “must fit within the general interest and not be contrary to the national foundations and values or the public order and good morals.” Such provisions are too vaguely worded to allow associations to reasonably predict whether any of its activities amount to a crime, and the provisions threaten the exercise of free speech and freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
The petition also contends that the group violated the law’s article 23, which provides that cooperation with international and foreign associations must “respect national values and fundamentals” and “requires prior approval of relevant authorities.” The petition accuses the group of meeting with representatives of Amnesty International and the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
The legal provisions used by Algerian authorities to request the dissolution of RAJ are incompatible with the right to freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said. Associations should be free to determine their statutes and activities and make decisions without state interference and should not face the ultimate sanction of dissolution for legal and peaceful activities. They should be free to entertain relationships with foreign entities subject to reasonable disclosure laws but without prior government approval.
The petition cited as “proof of political activities” a 2019 television program in which RAJ President Fersaoui expressed support for arrested politicians, and a political debate on Facebook in which Fersaoui criticized the repression of Hirak activists and called for the resumption of street protests after Covid-19 related public health restrictions are lifted.
Fersaoui was arrested on October 10, 2019, at a sit-in in solidarity with Hirak detainees, and charged with “harming the integrity of the national territory.” He was sentenced to one year in prison in April 2020 and released one month later, after his sentence was reduced on appeal. The government cited Fersaoui’s prosecution and sentence as evidence that RAJ conducts illegal activities.
In 2019 and 2020, several prominent members of RAJ, including its founder Hakim Addad, were arrested during Hirak marches, and prosecuted for “illegal gathering” and “harming the integrity of the national territory.” On June 22, a Sidi Mhamed Court acquitted these activists – Djalal Mokrani, Hakim Addad, Kamel Ouali, Hmimi Bouider, and Massi Aissousse – of the charges against them.
In another case, the Sidi Mhamed court on July 8 sentenced Addad in absentia to one year in prison for “inciting to an unarmed gathering” and other charges, on the basis of online publications in support of the Hirak movement.
Human Rights Watch has documented in the past how Algerian authorities used the law on associations to repress the right to free association. In February 2018, authorities closed the offices of two women’s rights groups in Oran, a city West of Algiers, on the grounds that they were not legally registered, even though both associations said they had filed for registration.
In May 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association described the law on associations as a “step backwards.”
Article 52 of Algeria’s constitution guarantees the right to free association, as does article 10 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989.
“The Algerian authorities’ petition to dissolve RAJ is an alarming indicator of their determination to crack down further on independent activism and suppress the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” said Amna Guellali, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International. “Authorities should repeal Algeria’s repressive association law rather than use it to crush dissent.”