An activist’s escape reveals escalating repression in Algeria

When Amira Bouraoui, an Algerian-French pro-democracy activist, boarded a plane bound for France from Tunisia last month, she thought her ordeal was finally over.

She had twice failed to flee Algeria, where her activism had put her in the government’s crosshairs. Her third attempt to illegally enter neighboring Tunisia led to her arrest and threats of deportation. Only a last-minute offer from France for consular protection saved her.

“I was ready to do anything to leave Algeria,” Ms Bouraoui, 47, said in a recent interview in a Paris suburb where she now lives in exile, asking not to reveal the exact location. “Not being able to express myself freely was like a slow death for me.”

What she did not expect, however, was the retaliation of the Algerian government. A dozen days after Ms Bouraoui’s escape, prosecutors accused her 71-year-old mother, her cousin, a well-known journalist, a taxi driver and a customs officer of “criminal conspiracy” to have helped her escape.

“They tell me, ‘We got you through your mother,'” Ms. Bouraoui said.

Her case is part of what academics and human rights groups have described as a growing crackdown on civil society by an Algerian government sliding toward authoritarianism. In recent years, hundreds of activists have been jailed, dozens more have fled abroad and the last remnants of an independent news outlet have been stifled.

Four years after a popular uprising known as Hirak ousted Algeria’s autocratic 20-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and seemed to herald a new dawn for the country, hopes for genuine democracy have been dashed. In a cruel twist of fate, some Hirak supporters are now even feeling nostalgic for the days when Mr. Bouteflika was in power.

“We were freer,” Ms. Bouraoui said. “I’m sorry to say that.”

Ms Bouraoui, a gynecologist, rose to prominence in the 2010s for her vocal opposition to Mr Bouteflika’s long and undemocratic rule.

When the Hirak uprising broke out in 2019, she quickly became a face of the movement. Every week, streams of protesters from a variety of backgrounds took to the streets peacefully to demand an overhaul of Algeria’s corrupt, military-backed government.

Shaken by the rare demonstrations, the country’s establishment sacked Mr Bouteflika and approved a new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected on a promise to heed protesters’ demands. He began with some goodwill gestures and released detained protesters.

“One of the first things Tebboune said was, ‘I’m going to extend my hand to Hirak,'” Ms. Bouraoui said. “I believed him.”

But, she added, “it was only extended to thrash us.”

After the coronavirus pandemic brought protests to a halt, Algerian security services intervened again, arresting dozens of activists in a game of cat and mouse. according to a some 250 people were “held in prison for taking part in peaceful protest, activism or speaking out” in October. Human Rights Watch report.

Ms Bouraoui, who has been arrested multiple times and spent several days in detention, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2021 for “insulting Islam” and insulting the President. At the time of her escape, she had not yet been detained pending an appeal.

Fearing renewed protests, the Algerian authorities have targeted individuals and groups with links to the Hirak insurgency to ensure the movement “is crushed once and for all,” said Dalia Ghanem, an Algeria expert at the Institute of European Studies Union for Security Studies.

Two weeks ago, the Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse, a leading youth-oriented human rights organization, and the left-wing Mouvement Démocratique et Social party, founded 60 years ago, were banned by Algeria’s Supreme Administrative Court. Journalists and media organizations that reported extensively on the uprising were also detained and shut down.

“They are blocking any possibility of a civil society organization, any hope for Hirak’s return,” said Saïd Salhi, vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights.

The group was disbanded in June after a complaint from the Home Office. But Mr Salhi, who lives in exile in Belgium, said the group only found out about the court case in January related court documents started circulating on the internet.

Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, recently denounced these prohibitions as “acts of intimidation, silence and repression”.

The Algerian Justice Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Last fall, the country’s justice minister, Abderrachid Tabbi, said told the United Nations that the recent prosecutions “had nothing to do with freedom of expression”.

Algeria, which emerged from a bloody war of independence against France six decades ago, has long been governed by a one-party system. Since the late 1980s, power has rested in the hands of a tight-knit group of political and military leaders, a system Ms Ghanem described as “competitive authoritarianism‘ which mixes in symbolic elements of democracy such as multi-party elections.

In 2021, the government revised the Penal Code, expanding terrorism-related charges to include individuals who challenged the government by vaguely defined “unconstitutional means.” United Nations experts And human rights groups say were used to persecute peaceful activists.

“With this reform, they crushed Hirak,” Mr Salhi said. He added that the allegations of terrorism were playing on deep-seated fears in a population still traumatized by a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s that claimed up to 100,000 lives.

The repression was sharply criticized at the United Nations last autumn, when Algeria’s human rights record was reviewed.

However, it remains unclear whether the conviction will have a lasting impact on the country’s international reputation. Algeria, one of the world’s largest natural gas producers, has benefited from the war in Ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis to forge new partnerships with the West.

One casualty, however, could be the country’s relationship with France, its longtime colonial ruler, with whom a rapprochement has only just begun after decades of animosity over its troubled past.

After Ms. Bouraoui fled under French consular protection, the Algerian Foreign Ministry got in touch accused France for aiding and abetting the “illegal exfiltration of an Algerian national” and recalled its ambassador in Paris over the affair. To up the ante, Algeria’s official news agency a opinion Flagellation of the French secret services as striving for “the definitive break with Algeria”.

Ms Bouraoui said she decided to flee via Tunisia after the editor of an independent radio station, where she ran a weekly program, was charged and taken into custody for publishing articles threatening national security. “The noose tightened,” she said.

She used her mother’s passport to cross the Tunisian-Algerian border incognito in a taxi. She was arrested at a Tunis airport a few days later while attempting to board a flight to France and was due to stand trial last month for entering Tunisia illegally. A Tunisian court sentenced her in absentia to three months in prison.

“During Hirak 2019, hopes for change were high,” Ms. Bouraoui said. “The disillusionment today is just as great.” An activist’s escape reveals escalating repression in Algeria

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