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Algerian authorities accused of clamping down on protesters

Human Rights Watch says security forces have carried out large-scale arrests throughout Algeria, targeting protesters
A weekly protest against the ruling elite in the capital Algiers on 6 September for the 29th consecutive Friday since the movement began in February (AFP)

Algerian authorities are targeting people participating in peaceful protests, leading to large-scale arrests in response to months of demonstrations that are demanding a political overhaul, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.

The rights advocacy group says the government is "tightening the screws" on protests that began in late February and led to the forced resignation of longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

“Police forces have deployed massively in Algiers’ central streets and squares and at checkpoints, effectively limiting the number of people who can reach [a] march, and then tightly controlling those who do,” HRW said on its website.

Algeria has seen mass demonstrations since earlier this year calling for political change and an end to a corrupt system led by an old and out of touch ruling elite.

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After 20 years in power, Bouteflika quit in April under pressure from protesters and the army, but protests have continued.

The demonstrators have been calling for radical change and the removal of senior figures, including politicians and businessmen, who they see as part of an elite that have governed the North African country since independence from France in 1962.

Security clampdown

Since February, when the first demonstrations began, there have been weekly gatherings on Fridays, sometimes amassing to crowds in the tens of thousands.

According to HRW, Friday protests are usually tolerated by security forces, but they are increasingly being monitored and controlled. There are various checkpoints put in place near the capital and public transportation is limited near the protest sites.

“On August 6, a Tuesday, Human Rights Watch witnessed hundreds of security men equipped with anti-riot gear circling a crowd of protesters in central Algiers and progressively pushing it out of Place de La Grande Poste, breaking the crowd into smaller and smaller groups until the protest dissolved about one hour after it started.”

Security forces have arrested people for peacefully carrying a flag or a protest sign. They have shut down meetings by political and non-governmental groups and blocked a major news website, according to the HRW report.

The group has said that security forces began large-scale arrests across Algeria in June. There are 40 protestors currently in custody, many of whom have been arrested for carrying the Amazigh or Berber flag, which has become a symbol of activism in the region.

“They are under investigation for ‘harming the integrity of the national territory,’ which carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison,” HRW said.

The non-governmental organisation has called for the immediate release of all those arrested for possessing or waving a flag, saying “it’s a peaceful expression protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

War veteran in prison

A veteran of the independence war is among those arrested, after he criticised the country’s military leadership. Lakhdar Bouregaa, 86, is an icon of the Algerian war against France and a longtime opposition voice. 

Bouregaa was a commander of the National Liberation Army (ALN) which fought the French and a founder in 1963 of the Front for Socialist Forces (FFS), one of Algeria's oldest opposition parties. He was arrested in June.

Along with arrests, the authorities have cracked down on media news sites critical of the government. Tout Sur l’Algerie (TSA) reported that its IP addresses were blocked in June, making it inaccessible for people in Algeria. The independent news site, one of the few that openly criticised the Bouteflika government, was also blocked back in October 2017.

“TSA denounces this act of censorship against an independent media. An act that shows that the old practices of the authorities have not stopped,” it said on its website.

Fresh calls for election

Last week the army called for elections to be held later this year, according to the country’s state media.

An election had been scheduled for July, but the authorities cancelled it, citing a lack of candidates and without naming a new election date.

Protesters had also demanded the elections be postponed until the old ruling elite, including the interim president Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, seen as Bouteflika allies, was forced from power.

The army, now the main player in Algerian politics, has repeatedly urged the opposition to cooperate in holding an election as soon as possible.

It has also tried to appease protests by helping the judiciary to meet demands for the prosecution of senior politicians and businessmen suspected of corruption.