“If I do not come back, do not forget to give her medicine by break of fast,” Walid Kechida, twenty-five, told a friend who stayed with his widowed mother while he went to a nearby police station in Setif, some 270 kilometers east of Algiers, one night in Ramadan. Kechida had already been summoned a number of times by local police recently, but had returned home each time.
That night, however, he did not. The following morning, on Monday 27 April, he appeared before the court and was placed in pretrial detention. He was charged with four cases. He had allegedly insulted “the president of the republic,” “state constituent bodies,” the “forces of law and order during the exercise of their functions,” and “the dictates of religion.”
Kechida, who lives alone with his mother, was confined at home making memes as Algerian authorities had imposed a nationwide curfew due to the coronavirus epidemic. His lawyer, Moumene Chadi, says the seriousness of the charges in no way corresponds to the alleged “crime” of posting satirical Facebook posts. Moreover, the pretrial detention, he claimed, was unnecessary given the current sanitary circumstances.
Memes for the Hirak
Walid Kechida created a Facebook group under the title of “Hirak Memes,” relating to the anti-government Hirak protests that have been taking place in Algeria since February 2019 and which ousted the former President Bouteflika in early April of that same year. With over sixteen thousand members, the group satirized government officials and the country’s political situation, sometimes in a crude and coarse manner.
Kechida, who administered the group, seldom posted memes himself. One meme, uploaded days before his detention, caricatured the inflation of Algerian currency; the caption read, “this is the Algerian dinar. Within a few months, Algerians will learn how to do origami with it.” Another one, likely to have caused his legal troubles, mocked President Tebboune’s name.
It remains unclear, however, how Kechida insulted the dictates of religion, state constituent bodies, and forces of law during the exercise of their functions. Moumene Chadi said the court would not disclose the evidence used by the prosecution so long as the investigation is underway.
The satirical group was meant to be a space for democratic discussion, its description reads, and was open to those who stood both for and against the Hirak movement. It was often tumultuous but not lawless: “Attacks on race or region, and discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation, are not acceptable,” one of its membership rules instructs.
“The judge could have granted [Kechida] provisional release,” Chadi told me, “but he decided to proceed with the pretrial detention although the offenses were not critical.”
Laws Aimed at Silencing Dissent
According to the Algerian penal code, it is lawful for judges to order pretrial detention if the alleged charges are punishable by three years or more. “Insulting the dictates of religion” alone is punishable by up to five years in prison, and offending the president of the republic by up to twelve months.
Insulting the dictates of religion (Article 144 bis 2 of the Algerian Penal Code), which draws from the 2001 constitutional reform under Bouteflika, often incriminated non-fasters during Ramadan and, more recently, bloggers touching on religious topics. Like other lawyers in Algeria, Chadi deems such laws, “in which politics and religion intertwine with the aim of silencing dissent,” to be too abstract and in need of precise definitions. Insulting the president of the republic was also criminalized under the June 2001 reform, along with insulting state constituent bodies, which now included police officers, judges, and even the army chief of staff.
Walid Kechida’s case is one among many. Since April, at least fifty people have been arrested solely for Facebook posts. This information comes from a statement made in early May by the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), an independent group monitoring the number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Algeria since the beginning of the Hirak and demanding their release.
Early in March, another activist, Malik Riahi, was sentenced to eighteen months in prison, charged with “insulting the president of the republic” and two other charges after he posted a video on Facebook.
“People are tortured, humiliated, and suppressed, but it is normal. The country is being destroyed and there is [supposedly] nothing wrong with that. But if you criticize the ‘ruler' with what is real, imprisonment and abuse is your destiny,” read one of his last posts.
The CNLD, which counted at least 237 detentions in April 2020 since the beginning of the Hirak, says the Algerian “judiciary is still subject to the executive [branch].” In October of last year lawyers from all over the country joined the Hirak protests, calling for an end to the “justice of the telephone.” The saying became a protest-wide catchphrase denouncing the instructions given to magistrates by the authorities—that were allegedly done by telephone.
Although Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s presidency promised to “build a new republic” upon its highly-contested coming to power in December of last year, many of the government’s current practices are reminiscent of the past, if not worse. In his inauguration speech, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who is officially still head of the Superior Magistrate Council (Conseil supérieur de la magistrature), also pledged to secure a separation of powers, grant larger public freedoms, and fight the corruption that is supposedly endemic to the Bouteflika era.
Bouteflika outlawed protests in the capital and responded with stern crackdowns, which resulted in fewer demonstrations. Yet the number of arrests among political activists after the ousting of the ailing president in April 2019 seems to surpass any prior figures. Moreover, Tebboune’s proposed constitutional amendment, the first draft of which was made public on 7 May, was viewed by Algerians as a mere continuation of a presidential system where the executive branch still holds the upper hand.
Repression under Lockdown
“These arbitrary arrests are not new to us and they are not even random,” Zaki Hannache, an Algiers-based activist in the Hirak, told me. “Recently, they targeted a limited number of individuals and groups who [the government] saw as being influential in the protests.”
On 2 January, many political detainees were released, whereas others, such as Karim Tabbou, the spokesperson for the Democratic and Social Union (an opposition party), are still being detained on charges as serious as “undermining national unity.” Abdelouahab Fersaoui, leader of the civic group Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse) who was arrested in October 2019 with a similar charge to others, was released on Sunday 17 May, after spending seven months in prison.
“Under the lockdown and the suspension of the Hirak,” Hannache added, “authorities started targeting those who are active virtually, like Facebook page administrators and even mere posters, to intimidate dissent more or less everywhere and make an example out of them.”
Social media, not least of all Facebook, were instrumental in the early days of the mobilization of 2019. Even before February 2019, Algerians expressed their rejection of Bouteflika’s fifth term online. These denunciations were then followed by calls for taking to the streets.
Human rights defense groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have claimed that authorities in Algeria are taking advantage of the current health crisis and the suspension of social gatherings to repress protesters and political activists. The judicial apparatus even targets journalists for merely doing their job. Khaled Drareni, a correspondent for TV5Monde and other media outlets, was arrested for a second time on 27 March while covering the protests in downtown Algiers. He was charged with “incitement to unarmed gathering” and “harming the integrity of the national territory,” a sentence that could lead to ten years in prison.
“Similar to the Old One, Only Worse”
On Wednesday 13 May, El Manchar, an Algerian website of satirical news was suspended out of “fear,” as its editorial staff put it. Over the last five years, El Manchar, which means “saw” in Arabic and “backbiting” in Algerian, mainly satirized Algerian news and politics.
In a tweet, El Manchar stated that while it was not censored by authorities it was “led to think about the risks we are taking” amid the current “climate of repression of freedoms [and] the incarceration of citizens due to their activities on social networks.”
“While the authorities have tried several strategies to put an end to the yearlong protest movement, the [latest] crackdown is essentially meant to take advantage of the ongoing [health] crisis to undermine the Hirak’s future potential once the lockdown is over,” Zine Labidine Ghebouli, an Algerian researcher at the American University of Beirut, told me.
“The government is preparing itself for the inevitable return of the protest movement and while it thinks this crackdown could end the Hirak, it will instead strengthen it, and could even push [the movement] to [adopt a] more ‘radical’ means of struggle,” Ghebouli added.
Earlier in April, two other news websites, MaghrebEmergent.info and RadioM.info, were blocked in the country. El Kadi Ihsane, the managing editor of the two websites that often reported on the Hirak, denounced the sheer “political censorship,” calling it “the worst sequence of repression of press freedom that Algeria has known since the assassinations of journalists in the 1990s.” The ministry of communication said RadioM.info violated a 2012 law on media funding, accusing it of receiving funds from abroad, which RadioM.info denied.
Like the news website Tout sur l’Algérie, blocked since December 2019, L’Avant-Garde Algérie, a website “dedicated to democratic and progressive struggles in Algeria,” and Le Matin d’Algérie were also blocked recently.
“I am already thinking of launching El Manchar El Djadid,” posted Nazim Baya, founder of El Manchar. “It will be like the new Algeria, that is to say similar to the old one, only worse.”