Algeria releases four jailed activists, to ban ‘hate speech’

The plan to ban ‘hate speech’ has sparked fierce debate between those who back it and those who are wary that it could give wide scope to crack down on legitimate protest.
Tuesday 14/01/2020
Algerian riot police vehicles are lined up on both sides of a main street where anti-government protests are taking place, in Algiers, January 10. (AFP)
Algerian riot police vehicles are lined up on both sides of a main street where anti-government protests are taking place, in Algiers, January 10. (AFP)

ALGIERS – Algerian authorities on Monday freed four protesters who were jailed for disrupting campaigning for the December election to choose a successor to ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, an activist group said.

The four were sentenced to 18 months in prison in November for their role in the months-long “Hirak” reform movement, which has kept up mass rallies since Bouteflika’s ouster last April.

The CNLD prisoners’ rights group said the four were released on appeal.

A total of 76 Hirak activists, either awaiting trial or serving a sentence, have been released from jail, most of them in Algiers, it said.

The CNLD said the four were jailed for “hindering” the election process after they tried to block a November 17 rally in the northwest city of Tlemcen for former premier Ali Benflis, one of the five presidential candidates.

The candidates needed heavy police protection during rallies, where clashes often erupted between police firing tear gas and protesters hurling stones and other projectiles.

On December 12, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who once served as prime minister under Bouteflika, was elected in a vote marred by low turnout.

Nearly a year after the Hirak movement began, protesters continue to demand systemic reform and the resignation of government officials.

Plans to ban ‘hate speech’

The president of protest-hit Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, plans to outlaw “hate speech” that has proliferated on social networks in recent months, his office said Monday.

Tebboune asked Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad to draft a bill “criminalising all forms of racism … and hate speech in the country,” according to a statement published by the official APS press agency.

The new initiative follows “an upsurge in hate speech and incitement,” the presidential statement said.

Algerian social networks have become a battleground for rival political camps after they gave rise to the popular “Hirak” protest movement that in April ended the 20-year reign of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The tone became more aggressive in the run-up to a December 12 presidential election, held in the face of strong opposition from the protest movement which saw the polls as an attempt by the establishment to consolidate its power.

All five candidates who ran in the poll had links to Bouteflika, with Tebboune having served as one of his prime ministers. Official turnout was less than 40 percent.

The law would allow authorities “to confront those who exploit the freedom and peaceful nature of Hirak” by brandishing “slogans that undermine national cohesion,” the statement said.

The initiative has sparked fierce debate on social media between those who back it and those who see it as an unnecessary measure, with some wary that it could give wide scope to crack down on legitimate protest.

The planned law stipulates that “everyone is called upon to comply with the Constitution and laws of the Republic, in particular respect for… the Nation state and its values… as well as the symbols of the state.”

Nearly a year after the launch of the popular movement, its activists continue to demand an end to the governing system in place since the country’s independence from France in 1962.

(AW and agencies)