North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Algeria’s political prisoners go on hunger strike amid escalating repression

Trade unionists in the country, who are already ceaselessly persecuted, are being targeted for their role in the Hirak pro-democracy movement

Peter Rossman
11 February 2022, 7.27am
Independent trade unionists in Algeria have been persecuted for their engagement in the Hirak
Idealink Photography / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Since 28 January, some 40 political prisoners in Algeria have been on hunger strike, demanding their release from illegal and arbitrary detention and a halt to the increasing prosecution of democracy activists on charges of ‘terrorism’ under the new Article 87bis of the criminal code. Women, youth and trade unionists are among the hunger strikers incarcerated under ‘provisional detention’, awaiting trail and sentencing. Several leaders of SNAPAP, the independent union of workers in public administration, have joined the strike in solidarity from outside.

Repression in Algeria has escalated significantly since the mass movement for democracy, the Hirak, erupted in February 2019. COVID took the Hirak off the streets in 2020, but the revival of strikes and street protests early last year led to a brutal crackdown. Following the highly mediatized release of some 40 prisoners last February, the National Committee for the Release of the Detainees counted 70 prisoners of conscience. Today they number 330.

Independent trade unionists in Algeria face dual repression. They have been ceaselessly persecuted for their fight for trade union rights and are now repressed for their engagement in the Hirak. Since 2017, the supervisory bodies of the International Labour Organization (ILO) have regularly confirmed violations of basic trade union rights in Algeria and called on the country’s government to guarantee the rights of unions independent of the state, so far without result.

Headquarters of independent unions have been shut and sealed by the police. Constant surveillance, serial prosecutions of activists and the effective criminalization of union activity, which now includes the threat of prosecution for ‘terrorism’, make it impossible for union members to communicate freely and to meet publicly. Union leaders and members continue to be dismissed from their jobs and blacklisted from public sector employment.

In April last year, Kaddour Chouicha, national coordinator for the education workers’ union, SESS, and a prominent member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, was prosecuted along with a dozen other human rights defenders for ‘enrolment in a terrorist or subversive organization active abroad or in Algeria’. Amnesty International, in a report on 24 June, warned that “Since April 2021, Algeria’s authorities have increasingly resorted to the use of ‘terrorism’ or ‘conspiracy against the state’ charges to prosecute human rights defenders and Hirak activists.”

Last June, Ramzi Darder, a mechanic and a member of the National Federation of Informal Workers (which is affiliated to the independent Confederation of Productive Workers, COSYFOP), was arrested on charges including ‘terrorism’, undermining the morale of the army, and undermining national unity through his publications on social media. Two months later, Ramzi was transferred to a prison block for death row inmates and terrorism defendants, despite there still not being date for his trial. His physical and mental health are deteriorating. Several international trade union federations are campaigning for his release.

Between 2-11 January this year, four officers from COSYFOP and SNATEG, the independent union of workers in state energy utility SONELGAZ, were arrested and jailed, then released under ‘judicial supervision’. They are charged, under Article 87bis of the penal code, with ‘organizing and recruiting a terrorist organization through social media and organizing a criminal organization harmful to national unity’.

Not all trade unionists are charged with ‘terrorism’, but all are subjected to endless rounds of persecution at the hands of the courts and the police. Typical of this is the serial prosecution of teacher and SNAPAP militant, Dalila Touat, who has been active for many years in defending the rights of the unemployed. Dalila was arrested and jailed on 3 January last year, charged with insulting public institutions, distributing tracts detrimental to the maintenance of public order and incitement to unlawful assembly – for urging an election boycott. Convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison on 19 January, she was provisionally released the following month under ‘judicial supervision' after two hunger strikes pending her appeal. In November 2021, she was sentenced to six months imprisonment, again for insulting a public institution, having denounced the abusive conditions of her incarceration and sought legal remedy. Last month, on 31 January 31, she was arrested in the Algerian port city of Mostaganem, imprisoned and charged with inciting an illegal gathering, denigrating a public body and distributing publications damaging to the national interest.

In December 2021, five UN Special Rapporteurs addressed a comprehensive communication to the Algerian government, warning that the various legislative changes concerning ‘terrorism’ significantly undermine human rights. In 2021 alone, UN Special Rapporteurs sent 13 communications to the Algerian government concerning human rights violations in the country. The government has ignored, attacked or dismissed these efforts.

True to form, the government has denied that a hunger strike is taking place. Some of the striking prisoners have been transferred from El Harrach prison in Algiers to other locations across the country, and prosecutors have threatened action against anyone reporting on the strike.

The situation of journalists and media workers is particularly dire – a 22 September 2021 Reporters Without Borders update on press freedom in Algeria is entitled ‘The figures speak for themselves’.

On 26 November last year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Algeria that gives an excellent overview of the escalating repression. For the first time since 2015, in what are now a series of resolutions adopted with cross-party support, it explicitly references attacks on trade unionists and violations of ILO core conventions, together with numerous other violations of fundamental human rights.

The resolution iterates a number of concrete demands, and “Calls on the Algerian authorities to ensure both full accountability and civilian and democratic oversight of the armed forces, and their effective subordination to a legally constituted civilian authority, and to guarantee that the role of the military is adequately defined in the Constitution and expressly limited to matters of national defence.” This is the heart of the matter.

The Hirak forced Algeria’s rulers to abandon a fifth mandate for President Bouteflika, but the military still rules the country after six decades of independence. It is attempting to asphyxiate democratic civil society, including trade unionists fighting for freedom of association and worker rights.

The European Parliament has adopted excellent resolutions on the human rights situation in Algeria in the past, only for them to wither in the Brussels bureaucracy, energy and arms deals. Immediate action is needed to secure the lives and the freedom of Algerians fighting for democracy. But sustained pressure must also be applied to get the military out of politics, a precondition for any democracy.

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