The arrest of Ihsane El Kadi and Algeria's authoritarian turn
Ihsane El Kadi and his family had already changed into their pyjamas by the time the Algerian police stormed his home to arrest him. It was midnight on December 24th, and he and his family were at their house by the beach, about 60 kilometres outside of the capital city of Algiers.
A few hours earlier, El Kadi had received a call from security forces summoning him to the headquarters of the Algerian police for questioning. No stranger to intimidation and harassment by the police, El Kadi calmly informed them that he was not in Algiers and said he would come in the next morning, but two hours later, agents were knocking on his door to arrest him.
“They gave him like five minutes to get changed and follow them… and since then he’s been under arrest,” recounted his daughter Tin Hinane El Kadi, who last saw her father on 14 January and has been organising the campaign for his release.
El Kadi’s trial officially began last Sunday 12 March. Citing outdated Covid restrictions, authorities announced last minute that he would be tried by video conference, which he refused.
"In recent months, the government has become significantly more aggressive in its efforts to control the media and silence criticism"
The trial has now been pushed to 26 March, but El Kadi and his lawyers have announced that they will boycott the trial in protest after releasing a statement saying that the conditions for a free trial have not been met.
El Kadi is one of Algeria’s most prominent journalists and an outspoken critic of the government. He is the founder and director of Radio M and Maghreb Emergent, considered the last independent press outlets in an increasingly restricted media landscape. Listeners tune in for programmes discussing issues related to human rights, freedom of expression, corruption, and economic policy.
The morning after his arrest, security forces marched a handcuffed El Kadi through Radio M’s headquarters, searching and seizing materials, and then shut down the outlet that Tin Hinane describes as her father’s “lifelong project”.
Since 2019, El Kadi has been arrested, interrogated, and charged numerous times as a result of his journalistic work and his outspoken position supporting the pro-democracy Hirak movement. In June 2022, he was sentenced to six months in prison for ‘belonging to a terrorist organisation’.
This time, he is charged with threatening ‘national unity’, spreading false news, and receiving foreign funds. Despite confiscating his passport, he has been kept in pre-trial detention.
“His spirits are high, because obviously he knows he's not [in jail] for having committed any crime, but for defending principles and fighting for an independent press in Algeria,” Tin Hinane told The New Arab.
“He wasn't that scared for himself,” she added, explaining that her father was more concerned for the fate of the journalists that worked for his outlet. “Also, he is just really worried about the kind of drastic turn of events, the clear authoritarian turn that country has taken.”
The government and ruling elite in Algeria have a long history of suppressing dissent and limiting the freedom of the press. In recent months, the government has become significantly more aggressive in its efforts to control the media and silence criticism, in what activists warn is the greatest crackdown on dissent since the country overthrew the former dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019.
“The situation in Algeria is very seriously deteriorating with the multiplication of cases of arbitrary arrests, undue restrictions to journalism, arbitrary restrictions to media and closure of press, all this in the context of very weak legislation that allows for broad interpretation of laws and their instrumentalisation to incriminate journalists,” said Antoine Bernard, the Director of Advocacy and Assistance at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“The case of Ihsane, which is based on trumped-up accusations and an empty file, is very illustrative of that deterioration,” he added.
In February 2019, weekly pro-democracy protests known as the Hirak (“movement” in Arabic) swept the country, with millions of Algerians taking to the streets in Friday demonstrations calling for an end to the rule of then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika as well as broader political reforms. After succeeding in overthrowing Bouteflika, the Hirak continued to call for a dismantling of the military state, an end to corruption, and democratic governance.
The new president Abdelmadjid Tebboune quickly began arresting and prosecuting those linked in the Hirak, using vague charges of terrorism and fake news that are frequently used to target journalists and activists. As of May 2022, more than 260 people remained detained while many more have been forced to flee.
"The escalating repression in recent months is likely an attempt to quell any remnants of the Hirak to prevent it from emerging again by targeting all those seen as supporting the movement, ensuring that it cannot threaten the political establishment"
Authorities have also cracked down heavily on civil society and opposition parties. Last year, in a significant blow, the government dissolved the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), the oldest independent human rights group in the country. In February, both a prominent youth association and a leftist opposition party were shut down by judicial order.
While Algeria was far from a thriving democracy during Bouteflika's rule, there was space for independent media as well as association and civil society groups defending human rights, such as the LADDH. However, since the start of the Hirak movement in 2019, activists say there has been a clear strategy adopted by the regime to systematically crush civil society.
The escalating repression in recent months is likely an attempt to quell any remnants of the Hirak to prevent it from emerging again by targeting all those seen as supporting the movement, ensuring that it cannot threaten the political establishment, particularly as momentum returns following a lull during the years of the pandemic.
Another factor behind the growing crackdown is the potential that Tebboune may run for a second term - something El Kadi had written about shortly before his arrest - and is targeting those that might threaten his ability to run uncontested.
Algeria’s growing geopolitical significance may be yet another factor that has enabled the government’s escalating crackdown on dissent. Algeria has long been an important player in the global energy market, and its position has only strengthened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as European countries look to its vast reserves of natural gas to reduce their dependence on Russian gas.
Since last February, Algeria has signed numerous oil and gas deals with European countries including Italy, Spain, France, and Slovenia, and is currently the third largest supplier to the continent. With plans to expand production, it has become a crucial energy partner to Europe.
This has given Algeria’s regime increased leeway and leverage in escalating repressive measures without significant pushback from its European partners. This has been reflected in the international response to El Kadi's arrest, as pushback from other governments and world leaders has been minimal. Activists warn that the regime may feel emboldened that it can get away with more due to its newfound international importance.
Still, the mobilisation from international organisations and human rights groups has been overwhelming. In addition to the RSF campaign, journalists activists from across the world have called for El Kadi’s immediate release.
"RSF has triggered the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to consider El Kadi’s case for it's clear he shouldn't be spending one more minute detained nor prosecuted,” Bernard told The New Arab.
Within Algeria and in the diaspora, the cause has also gained momentum, with hundreds of citizens signing an open letter to President Tebboune after he made public comments seemingly directed at El Kadi. An online petition has garnered more than 10,000 signatures and rallies have been organised in his defence.
"'If we had an independent judiciary, he would be free'"
The solidarity shown with her father gives Tin Hinane some hope. “I want to be hopeful and optimistic. I mean, his case is empty. So if it was strictly on a legal basis, there is nothing in his file. If we had an independent judiciary, he would be free.”
“But because we don’t and its politically instrumentalised, I think it will very much depend on how much pressure we put by reporting on the cause internationally and keeping pressure on the regime.”
Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, borders and migration, environment and media representation. She is a Deputy Editor with The New Arab's editorial team.
Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat