Algeria: Authorities must not allow another preventable death in detention

Algeria, Statement

Read in:  Arabic 

Serious concerns for physical and psychological integrity of prisoner of conscience Abdallah Benaoum subjected to long-term judicial harassment.

The undersigned organisations are deeply alarmed by the rapidly deteriorating health of activist and prisoner of conscience Abdallah Benaoum, on hunger strike since 1 September 2021. In addition to being imprisoned arbitrarily for over two years solely based on his exercise of free expression, as recalled in a previous statement, his life is now at grave risk.

At least two prisoners of conscience have died in detention in Algeria over the past five years – human rights defender Kamel Eddine Fekhar in May 2019 and journalist Mohamed Tamalt in December 2016 – both following a hunger strike[1]. Benaoum has been prosecuted in at least six different cases since 2018 – all solely based on critical social media publications and private phone communications. Algerian authorities must immediately release him to prevent the death of another prisoner of conscience under their custody, and end the judicial harassment against him in retaliation for his peaceful dissent.

None of the charges against Benaoum are legitimate offences under international human rights law[2], as their overly broad formulation only serves to criminalise the exercise of fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression. Yet Benaoum must stay in prison until at least May 2023, potentially for longer, after the Supreme Court upheld three rulings against him dating back to 2018.

After almost 16 weeks on hunger strike, Benaoum has become physically incapacitated. Only able to move in a wheelchair, he is experiencing a loss of concentration and hearing, and his heart rate and respiratory rate have slowed. Benaoum suffers from a heart condition and already required special medical attention after his second heart surgery in two years, in November 2020. According to Benaoum’s lawyers, authorities do not appear to be restricting Benaoum’s access to medical care, and he was transported to the hospital four times since he started his hunger strike.

The Algerian authorities should respect Benaoum’s right to non-violent protest; they are also accountable for protecting and preserving the health and wellbeing of the prisoner and must seek a solution to such an extreme situation, first and foremost by initiating a good faith dialogue and addressing the underlying human rights violations against which he is protesting, as explained by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and Special Rapporteur on the right to health.

Due to the similarity of the charges against Benaoum across the six cases presented below, his lawyers requested for all the sentences to be aggregated, which is allowed under Article 35 of the Algerian Penal Code when they are all of the same nature. If the court accepts this aggregation of sentences, only the harshest sentence would be carried out – in this case, a two-year sentence of June 2018. Benaoum would then be released as he has already spent 38 months in prison.  A decision on the aggregation of sentences is expected on 22 December, after the court postponed it twice without justification.

We urge Algerian authorities to abide by their obligations under international law and immediately and unconditionally release Abdallah Benaoum to avoid a tragic and preventable outcome.

  • Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH)
  • Article 19
  • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  • Euromed Rights
  • International Federation for Human Rights, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
  • MENA Rights Group
  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

 

Background

Police arrested Abdallah Benaoum on 20 March 2018. During that year, the activist was prosecuted in at least four different cases similarly based on publications critical of the authorities and the army. Between April and December 2018, he was sentenced to a total of 50 months of imprisonment[3]. He served about 14 months in prison before he was conditionally released in June 2019, following a hunger strike and shortly after the death of human rights defender Kamel Eddine Fekhar.

Police arrested Benaoum again on 9 December 2019[4], six months after his last release. While he was in detention, he was sentenced to another two months in prison, on 27 January 2020, for “inciting an unarmed gathering” (Article 100 of the Penal Code). In a second case, he was sentenced to one year in prison on 19 November 2020, a ruling upheld on appeal on 21 March 2021. Based on social media posts and private phone communications criticising the authorities and opposing the holding of presidential elections, he was accused of “demoralizing the army”, “undermining national unity”, “inciting an unarmed gathering”, “offending state institutions”, “discrediting the decisions of the judiciary”, under Articles 75, 79, 97, 100, 146 and 147 of the Penal Code, respectively.

In three separate rulings, in November 2020, March 2021 and September 2021, the Supreme Court, after an appeal in cassation, respectively upheld the two-year prison sentence of June 2018, the two-month prison sentence of December 2018 and the 18-month prison sentence of October 2018, thus reversing the conditional release of June 2019. Benaoum therefore must stay in prison until at least May 2023 to complete these sentencings. If the rulings of April 2018 and January 2020 are also upheld in cassation, he could also face another eight months in prison.

In October 2020, ten Algerian and international organisations condemned the ill-treatment and poor medical care that Benaoum has faced in detention, and urged Algeria to release him immediately and unconditionally, and allow him to undergo a heart surgery he urgently needed. Authorities eventually agreed to have him undergo the heart surgery on 4 November 2020, which he had been requesting for several months. In spite of a critical health condition making him unfit for trial, the judge had repeatedly refused him conditional release.

 

[1] On 28 May 2019, Amazigh human rights defender Kamel Eddine Fekhar died in custody after a 50-day hunger strike to protest his detention for expressing critical opinions of the government. On 11 December 2016, British-Algerian journalist Mohamed Tamalt died in custody in a hospital in Algiers, following a hunger strike to protest his ill-treatment during his imprisonment for social media posts “offending” the President.

[2] Notably under Article 10 and Article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Algeria.

[3] On 29 April 2018, he was sentenced to 6 months of prison for “offending state institutions” (Article 146 of the Penal Code). On 6 June 2018, he was sentenced to 2 years of prison on 6 June 2018 for “using or instrumentalising the wounds of the National Tragedy [the Algerian civil war of the 1990s] with the aim of undermining of the Algerian Popular Democratic Republic, to weaken the state, dishonor its agents who served it with dignity, or tarnish the image of Algeria internationally” (article 46 of Law on Peace and National Reconciliation of 2006, which forbids publications about the Algerian civil war). In that case, he was also accused of “offending state institutions”, “offending the President”, “discrediting the decisions of the judiciary”, “undermining the honor of a public body”, “publication of personal information” in relation to publications on military commanders and publication of materials “likely to harm national interest for the purpose of propaganda”, respectively under Articles 146, 144bis, 147, 296, 298, 303bis1 and 96. On 7 October 2018, he was sentenced to 18 months of prison for “discrediting the decisions of the judiciary” (Article 147 of the Penal Code). In a fourth case, on 24 December 2018, he was sentenced to 2 months of prison for “inciting an unarmed gathering” (Article 100 of the same code).

[4] Along with activist Khaldi Ali.

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Algeria