PARIS ( Associated Press) – Mohamed Benhalima looks as wary and frightened as he disembarks from a plane at Algiers airport, with a security officer’s arm wrapped around him. A team from Algeria’s Rapid Intervention Force then puts him in their vehicle and escorts him to an undisclosed location.
The video was posted online on March 24. Three days later, Algerians watched on television as the 32-year-old confessed to being involved with an organization that authorities have listed as an Islamist terrorist group plotting against the Algerian government.
Once a loyal servant of his homeland as a non-commissioned military officer, Benhalima became a supporter of Algeria’s pro-democracy movement, then a fugitive who fled to Europe. Spain expelled him after Algeria issued a warrant for his arrest.
The confession scene was made public by Algeria’s Directorate General of National Security, which could be seen as a warning to other soldiers or civilians.
Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been jailed for trying to keep the Hirak movement alive, with weekly pro-democracy protests beginning in 2019 that led to the downfall of longtime Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The country’s military-backed government had banned the march last year.
Authorities then expanded their range, linking some Hirak supporters to two groups added to Algeria’s terrorist list last year: Rachad, who are perceived as Islamist infiltrators, whose leaders are in Europe, and MAK, Kabili. In a separatist movement, the home of the Berbers.
“Thousands of legal cases have been registered against activists for the past two or three years,” said Mustafa Buchachi, a well-known lawyer. “His only error is that he expressed his political opinion on social media … and is fighting for the status of the law.”
For officials in the gas-rich North African nation, guaranteeing the stability of the state is at the center of their actions. For human rights groups, Benhalima and others are victims of an unjust, ancient regime that sees dissidents, or any critical voice, as criminals. He says the Algerian authorities use threats to national security to suppress free speech, including those of journalists, and justify arrests.
A campaign on social media with the hashtag #PasUnCrime (not a crime) was launched on May 19 by dozens of non-governmental organizations against human rights suppression.
The US State Department’s 2021 report on human rights in Algeria cites a long list of problems, including arbitrary arrests and detentions and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association. In March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on Algeria to “change direction” in order to “guarantee its people’s right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.
“Being a human rights activist in Algeria has become very difficult,” said Hirak terrorist Zaki Hannaache, who was recently temporarily released from prison. “It is complicated to be a system denial worker. It also means sacrifice.”
Hannache, known for tracking arrests related to Hirak, was arrested and jailed in February on a range of charges, including defending terrorist acts.
Benhalima’s alleged confession reflects a combination of the evils that Algeria claims it is against. He said he was under the influence of Rachad and was in contact with its leader in London and his two brothers. The official APS news agency said Benhalima confirmed “the implications of the terrorist organization Rachad in hateful plans targeting the stability of Algeria and its institutions by exploiting misguided youth.”
Rachad’s website claimed that the police video showed the forced confession of a “hostage” in a propaganda exercise by the security services.
Rachad’s true goals are unclear, but it remains a major target of Algerian action. In December, Rachad said it had submitted a complaint to the UN special envoy on Algeria’s “arbitrarily” classifying the group as a terrorist organization and urged UN officials to ask Algeria its “illegal practices”. Was told to request to stop.
According to Amnesty International, Spain expelled Benhalima on grounds of national security interests and activities that “could harm Spain’s relations with other countries”. Spain expelled another fugitive, Mohamed Abdela, a disgruntled lingam in Algeria last August. Amnesty International called him a whistleblower.
Spain has a particular interest in remaining on good terms with Algeria, which meets most of its gas needs.
According to the National Committee on Freedom to Detain, about 300 people in Algeria are behind bars for their political opinions. Up to 70 were granted temporary freedom at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but others have been arrested.
In a symbolic case for Algerian journalists, the head of outspoken Radio M and online news site Algerie Emergent, Ihsane al-Qadi, was sentenced to three years in prison with a five-year ban for working for allegedly attacking national unity. takes risks. things. He had raised the displeasure of a former communications minister with a column urging him not to split himself on Rachad for the protest movement Heerak. The decision has been set for next week.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune recently launched a non-defining initiative called the “outer arm”, described as an “inner front”, to promote dialogue across all sectors of society. The army chief said that Chengriha suggested in several speeches that it was also to counter Algeria’s perceived enemies. The initiative comes ahead of 5 July celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence from France, which was won after a brutal seven-year war.
“Nobody can refuse” to participate in the initiative, said Abu al-Fadl Badji, general secretary of the National Liberation Front, which was once Algeria’s only political party. He was among the officials Tebboune recently met on the subject. People are “waiting with suspense about the contents of this initiative… but we are in for the idea even before we know the details.”
Benhalima awaits the decision of his appeal for a 10-year prison sentence after pleading in absentia to attacks on secrecy and state interests related to his online posts on the Algerian military, including confidential information of senior officials.
Lotfi Bouchouchi in Algiers, Algeria contributed.