Little space for dissent as Algeria sends researcher, journalist to jail

Canadian-Algerian researcher among those sentenced for ‘publishing sensitive information’.

Algiers cityscape
Algeria is one of the world's biggest producers of oil, and revenues have increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine [File: Ramzi Boudina/Reuters]

Canadian-Algerian researcher Raouf Farrah and Algerian journalist Mustapha Bendjama have both been sentenced to two years imprisonment by a court in the Algerian city of Constantine on charges of publishing sensitive state information.

Farrah was also convicted on Tuesday of receiving funds from foreign powers for the purposes of undermining state security.

Farrah’s father, who was visiting his son from Montreal at the time of his arrest, also received a suspended one-year sentence on the same charges. He had already been released on bail following a deterioration in his health.

The men were arrested by Algerian authorities in February.

Bendjama, 32, editor-in-chief of local independent news website Le Provincial, and Farrah, 36, a senior analyst with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) are both expected to serve their sentences at a prison in the northeast Algerian city of Constantine.

Farrah had been working at GI-TOC for more than six years, focusing on human smuggling and security, as well as the geopolitics of the region.

“We’re appalled by this sentence. None of these men should have been convicted,” Mark Micallef, director of the North Africa and Sahel Observatory for GI-TOC, told Al Jazeera.

“However, I know that both Raouf and his family had been preparing for this, which has no doubt helped,” Micalleff said of the researcher, who has not seen his four-year-old daughter for five months. “We’re now focussed on the appeal and are moving forward with that.”

Attacks on freedoms

For many observers, including leading rights organisations, the arrests are part of the clampdown on dissent that followed the flight from Algeria of activist and journalist Amira Bouraoui to France while appealing a two-year sentence for “offending Islam” and “insulting the President” during the prominent role she had played in 2019-2021 anti-government protests known as the Hirak.

“There is no doubt that the charges against Farrah are political,” Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. “While they are prosecuting him for publishing classified information and receiving funding to commit public order offences, his arrest did not happen in a vacuum, but shortly after Amira Bouraoui fled the country. He and his father got caught up in the reprisals after her escape.”

The Algerian state has been criticised by several international organisations for its policing of internal dissent, with Freedom House, the Washington-based monitoring group noting the deterioration in rights within Algeria after the global pandemic brought the Hirak to a close.

“The Hirak protest movement in 2019 put pressure on the regime to reform, but a crackdown on dissent in the following years has prevented large-scale demonstrations from continuing,” Freedom House noted in its annual report.

According to figures released by Amnesty International in June, anywhere between 250 and 300 Algerians are currently in prison on charges related to freedom of speech.

Among those targeted are journalists, activists, human rights defenders and “anyone seen to go against the grain, be it by criticizing the government on social media, participating in a group protecting minority rights, or writing for independent media,” Amnesty wrote.

Greater state power

While the pandemic is typically credited with having brought the Hirak to a close, the Algerian government has also reaped a financial and diplomatic dividend from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Before February 2021, Algiers was spending more money than any other OPEC state on subsidies, with dwindling foreign reserves from which to pay for it.

Hydrocarbon revenues, the country’s principal source of income, were not increasing, while diplomatically, regional rival Morocco had embraced former US President Donald Trump’s attempt to encourage regional normalisation with Israel, confirming what many had already come to see as Algeria’s continuing decline.

However, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2021, Algeria found its fortunes dramatically reversed.

Algiers found itself the focus of high-level exchanges with China, Russia and, principally, the European Union, as it undertook a significant energy pivot, away from Russian energy and towards North African reserves.

With Algieria’s financial future, at least for now, assured and the ability to continue to buy social peace through subsidies on energy and loans, the government appears to have forgotten some of the concessions it made in the face of the intense pressure for reform, including blocking the late longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from standing for a fifth term.

“‘There is definitely a sense that rights have retreated since the Hirak,” Hamdi Baala, an independent journalist, who had been active in his coverage of the protest movement, said. “Even outside of media and activist circles, people have seen many individuals from other sectors get imprisoned over various opinion charges.”

Baala also pointed to the recent arrests of grocery store owners on charges of “speculating”.

“Overall, there is a general feeling of authoritarian tightening that makes even the most fearless weigh every word now,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera