Algeria extends jailing of protest figure, prompts outcry

The extension of his imprisonment by a year, one day before he was to leave prison, was seen as a warning to dissidents.
Sunday 29/03/2020
An Algerian protester marches with a sign calling to set free politician Karim Tabbou during a demonstration against the ruling class in the capital Algiers, last September. (AFP)
Too iconic. An Algerian protester marches with a sign calling to set free politician Karim Tabbou during a demonstration against the ruling class in the capital Algiers, last September. (AFP)

The arrest of Algerian protest figure Karim Tabbou in September was a shock because it marked the first detention of a political activist in Algeria in years.

The extension of his imprisonment by a year, one day before he was to leave prison, was seen as a warning to dissidents and a shift in dealing with the pro-democracy movement amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Tabbou's wife, Zahra, and two children were preparing to celebrate his return from prison when they were told of his new sentence.

“They shattered the life of our family. They broke up the hearts of the children,” said Zahra Tabbou after a court sentenced Karim Tabbou to another year in jail.

Authorities had asked the court to overturn a ruling that would have released Tabbou on March 26. His lawyers said they were “stunned” by the swift decision on the appeal despite what they described as a sudden deterioration of Tabbou’s health.

Judiciary authorities said three doctors examined Tabbou before the trial proceeded but he refused to answer the judge and lawyers refused to plead his case in protest.

Rights activists said the extension of Tabbou’s imprisonment was “masterminded by the shadow forces,” an allusion to the military intelligence.

"The verdict in the trial of Tabbou sent a terrifying message to the protesters including political activists and other civic society militants: Any person who dares oppose or criticise the government will be punished,” rights group Amnesty International said in a release.

The International Federation of Human Rights, in a release, said "the events that had unfolded at the Algiers court today (March 25) are in total contradiction to the most basic human rights. They highlight the grave dysfunctions and the arbitrary (nature) of the Algerian judiciary.”

"The health crisis that hits all continents must incite the states to free all detainees arbitrarily imprisoned,” the federation said.

Tabbou, 47, was arrested September 25, apparently to pre-empt his potential leadership role in the Hirak protest movement. He was the first Algerian political opposition leader detained in more than a decade.

Tabbou was a leader of the main secular opposition party, the Socialist Forces from 2006-11, before splitting from the party to form the Social and Democratic Union.

More than 100 lawyers lined up to defend him at his trial March 4 and hundreds of Algerians filled streets near Sidi M’Hamed court.

The state prosecutor asked Tabbou be sentenced to four years in jail after he was convicted on charges of “demoralising the army,” "attack on the unity of national territory” and “incitement to gather” during his trial March 11. but the judge ordered him jailed for one additional year.

Algeria President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had tried to reach out to the Hirak, including releasing approximately 100 activists detained in connection with anti-government protests.

Rights advocacy groups say dozens more people connected with the protest movement remain in custody, though the exact number is difficult to establish.

Protest figures Fodil Boumala and Samir Benlarbi were released from prison in late February. Benlarbi was arrested again March 7 during demonstrations in Algiers.

The government hailed “the intelligence and wisdom” of Hirak leaders whose calls to suspend the movement’s weekly marches during the coronavirus outbreak were heeded by demonstrators. At least 26 have died from the disease and hundreds in Algeria are infected with coronavirus.

The extension of Tabbou's prison term was interpreted as a shift in the government’s dealing with the Hirak.

"I think that political actors expect the Hirak to resume with less strength after the isolation measures are lifted and it is likely that the state will take tough measures against gatherings in public spaces,” said Ameur Rekhila, a former member of the government-appointed Constitutional Council.

“The two scenarios are possible but it is certain that the political landscape will be changed,” he added.

Keeping Tabbou and other activists in jail adds pressure on Tebboune to intervene.

"At a time when the country needs to restore calm and unity to fight the pandemic and turn the page on arbitrariness to build at last a state based on rule of law, the verdict in Tabbou case looks like a provocation,” said the opposition Jil Jadid party.

The Rally for Culture and Democracy party called the sentence a "terrifying and unprecedented drift by a regime that is already condemned by history.”

“The Rally urges that the perpetrators of this crime against the people and Algeria be prosecuted,” it added.

The Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights said the trial was a “miscarriage of justice.”

“The trial and its verdict were a provocation against a peaceful and patriot Hirak. The trial was deliberately scheduled to prevent Karim Tabbou from joining the Hirak even when the protests are suspended,” it said.

“The immediate conclusion of this scandal is that the presidency of Abdelmadjid Tebboune is not different from [Abdelaziz] Bouteflika’s. The same manners, the same arrogance and the same refusal to admit that power is not to benefit a small group,” said rights activist Akram Belkaid.

“It is easy to prosecute a lone man. It is easy to make his family weep as it had been easy to prevent the Algerians from their freedom of expression but modernising a country to make it more developed and prosper is another matter.

“Karim Tabbou represents this new Algeria, he is not alone, a pluralist and democratic Algeria. That is why this regime is targeting him but history will not end here,” Belkaid said.