As the Algerian regime faces more and more scrutiny from the European Parliament, Algeria uses the COVID-19 lockdown as a shield for continued human rights abuses.
Rabat – The fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing political instability in Algeria are risking fundamental human rights in the North African country.
Freedom of expression, the right to protest, and freedom of the press are all under threat as the government continues clampdowns on journalists and protesters while the world turns a blind eye amid the global pandemic.
Members of European Parliament and international human rights NGO Amnesty International shone the spotlight on the issue at the end of April, drawing international attention to the ongoing oppression of opposition voices in the North African country.
On April 29, Spanish MEP María Soraya Rodríguez Ramos reminded the European Parliament of the worsening situation in Algeria, emphasizing that the recent violations are far from unprecedented.
“On 28 November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation of freedoms in Algeria (2019/2927 (RSP)) calling on the Commission and the EEAS to support civil society, journalists and activists in that Maghreb country,” she recalled.
Rodriguez explained that the European Union had pledged to monitor the human rights situation in Algeria during the political overhaul and the transition to a new government. Violations, however, continue.
“The COVID-19 containment measures cannot be used as an excuse for restricting freedom of expression and dissent in the country,” she told the parliament, in implicit condemnation of the lack of development since the adoption of the November resolution.
The Spanish MEP asked the EU member states two key questions:
“How and through what instruments is the EU monitoring compliance with the demands made by the above Resolution?” and “How is the EU monitoring the situation of rights and freedoms in Algeria in the context of COVID-19 and what is its assessment of the impact that the coronavirus outbreak may have on political and social developments in that country?”
Rodriguez’ call for increased scrutiny of the situation in Algeria came with the backing of liberal group Renew Europe. The centrist group of MEPs, founded in 2019, currently holds the majority of seats in the EU parliament. President of the European Council Charles Michel is also a member of the bloc.
The provenance of the call for enhanced monitoring reflects the deep concern within the European Parliament about the worsening situation in Algeria and the lack of progress in the dossier.
Lack of progress
In November 2019, the European Parliament issued a report accompanying the adoption of resolution 2019/2927. The report called on Algeria to end the criminalization of dissent, arbitrary arrests, and violations of minority rights.
“MEPs are deeply worried about the state of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Algeria,” the summary reads.
The MEPs condemned the “arbitrary and unlawful arrest and detainment of, attacks on and intimidations of journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, students, human rights defenders, and civil society and all peaceful protesters taking part in the Hirak demonstrations.”
In early 2019 a popular movement emerged in Algeria. Sparked by the decision of ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for another term of office, Algerians took to the streets to protest the corrupt government and call for a complete political overhaul.
Protesters called for an end to embezzlement of public funds, the silencing of opposition voices, and arbitrary arrests of journalists and activists.
International bodies, including the European Parliament, continued to denounce human rights violations amid uncertainty, even after Bouteflika resigned on April 3, 2019.
After months of continued protests and postponed elections, former prime minister Abdelmajid Tebboune became president in December 2019.
The election was marked by violent clashes and police interventions as many Algerians saw the election as part of the regime’s ploy to hijack the Hirak demonstrations.
Despite the end of public protests in the streets, dozens of activists have faced interrogation and prosecution amid COVID-19 crisis for their involvement in the Hirak (protest movement).
Oppression continues amid COVID-19
The European Parliament is not the only body to shine the spotlight on the situation in Algeria. On April 27, Amnesty International issued a report on the repression of opposition and prosecution of Hirak activists and journalists as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
The report urges Algerian authorities to halt arbitrary prosecutions “aimed at silencing Hirak activists and journalists amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The report said that authorities summoned at or arrested at least 20 activists for investigation between March 7 and April 13 alone.
Some of the activists were either held in pretrial detention or faced sentences relating to exercising their right to freedom of speech or peaceful assembly in six cities in Algeria.
“The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all peaceful activists detained solely for expressing their views online and offline and/or calling for a democratic change,” Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director Heba Morayef said.
Human rights abuse in Tindouf
The human rights abuses in Algeria are not limited to Algerian citizens, and the regime’s position on oppression of opposing voices is shared by the Polisario Front, the breakaway group to whom Algeria has handed over control of the Tindouf camps, where 90,000 Sahrawis live dire conditions.
In early April, Belgian MEP and former journalist Frederique Ries called on the European Commission to investigate Algeria’s “irresponsible attitude” towards the Sahrawi population in Tindouf.
Ries argued that Algeria is neglecting its moral responsibility to the camps’ population by allowing human rights abuse to continue “on its soil.”
The perspective of the Algerian regime is revealed in its management, or rather lack thereof, of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Tindouf camps. The result, Ries said, is an increasingly “alarming health situation.”
After Tebboune called for “heightened alert” on March 23, the Algerian military set up barricades at access points to the Tindouf camps, controlling the residents’ access to aid packages and medical supplies.
Nouakchott and Algiers agreed to close the borders between Algeria and Mauritania soon after the Algerian lockdown began, leaving the Sahrawis trapped in the desert with Algerian and Mauritanian security services blocking any attempts to escape the camp.
In early April, reports came out of Tindouf that, while Polisario leadership self-isolate in their state-provided homes in the Algerian town of Tindouf, Sahrawi residents are living in dire conditions without basic sanitation, healthcare, or security.
The Polisario Front and its self-imposed “government” continue to claim that the pandemic has not reached the camps. However, human rights activists based in Laayoune and Dakhla estimate that at least 250 people have contracted the virus and are being held in isolation without basic medical care in the camps.
In late April, the Global Africa Latina Foundation released a statement calling on Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, to intervene on behalf of the Sahrawis in Tindouf.
The foundation, a collective of Latin American NGOs, denounced “the manipulation of international humanitarian aid” and Polisario armed forces for “keeping the population in permanent captivity.”
Bachelet must “investigate the plight of the vulnerable population of Tindouf, who suffer from the iron grip and the tyranny of the Polisario and its mentors,” the foundation argued.
To underline the ongoing human rights violations within the camps and the inhumane conditions in which the Sahrawis are “captive,” the foundation explained that residents who have contracted COVID-19 “are locked up in tiny isolation rooms, in the absence of sanitation and equipment essential for their daily needs.”
The foundation’s explicit denunciation of the inhumane conditions in Tindouf and the alleged widespread disregard for basic human rights within the Algerian government, reflect a growing concern among human rights watchdogs and international bodies such as the EU.
Tebboune and his government may have been hoping the coronavirus pandemic would serve as a curtain, shielding the regime and its abuses from prying eyes. However, the recent flurry of calls from European Parliament reflect a changing tide and Algeria may soon face a wave of scrutiny, forcing it to finally take responsibility for the ongoing violations that have plagued its people, and the Sahrawis in Tindouf, for decades.