Death of Algerian activist arrested for Facebook post causes uproar
The death of an Algerian prisoner of conscience has triggered anger in the North African country in the midst of an intensified crackdown on freedom of expression under the new regime of President Tebboune.
Hakim Debbazi, a 55-year-old Algerian citizen, was arrested on 20 February in Hadjout, a small town in the coastal region of Tipaza, 70 kilometres west of Algiers. He had been in pre-trial detention in the prison of Koléa (Tipaza) since being arrested without charges.
Debbazi was announced dead on Sunday in mysterious conditions. He was the father of three children.
The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) said that a request for Debbazi's provisional release, which was introduced a few weeks ago because of his "already worrying state of health" was dismissed by the court.
Different sources say that Debbazi was arrested by Algerian authorities for publishing pro-Hirak content on his Facebook account. Debbazi's account, which is still online, features pro-Hirak statements and anti-regime videos produced by Algerians living abroad. The activist had only 91 friends on his account.
Debbazi's death exacerbated feelings of anger and injustice among many Algerians, who held the state directly responsible for the activist's death, with many now for the release of the rest of the prisoners of conscience, estimated at around 300 detainees.
On their part, Algerian authorities deny the existence of prisoners of conscience in the country.
"How did we get here...To die in prison for a publication or an opinion. I am sad for my country. The New Algeria of the change promised by the power is a deception," wrote Saïd Salhi, vice-president of the LADDH , on his Facebook page.
⚠️Detainees are at risk of dying inside the regime's prisons.— Asmaa (@Asmaa59475027) April 25, 2022
⚠️ Let the prisoners out.
⚠️Immediately & unconditionaily release those arbitrarily detained & put an end to arbitrary arrests and detentions.#دولة_مدنية_ماشي_عسكرية #اطلقوا_ولادنا_يعيدوا_معانا @hrw @amnesty pic.twitter.com/7E7giTsbKj
Shoaa for Human Rights, an Algeria-focused NGO based in London, accuses the state of exposing prisoners of conscience to various forms of torture and inhumane treatment in prison, leading to fatal consequences in some cases.
"The arrest of Debbazi was a crime and the outcome of it is a crime, both committed by the state," said Rachid Aouine, the director of Shoaa for Human Rights, to The New Arab.
The NGO often spotlights similar cases in Algeria over the past years, such as the death of human rights activist Kamal Eddine Fakhar, who died in 2019 because of medical negligence while he was detained in Ghardaia prison, as well as the death of journalist Mohamed Tamalt in 2016, after he went on a hunger strike and was beaten inside El Harrach prison, according to his family.
Amnesty International has called on Algerian authorities to "open an independent, inclusive and transparent investigation" into the circumstances surrounding Debbazi's death and to publicise the results.
However, the option of conducting an autopsy may not be possible as Debbazi's body was buried on Monday.
The Algerian Ministry of Justice has yet to react to the activist's death.
In 2019, millions of Algerians protested against the regime of Bouteflika during the Hirak uprising. After Bouteflika's resignation, protesters continued to rally against the so-called "mafia", meaning those who benefited from the regime's corruption and oppression over the past decades.
Algerians' drive toward democracy has reached "a dark point", according to Rachid Aouine, the director of Shoaa for Human Rights.
“Today, We are in a worse era than [during] Bouteflika. Before [the Hirak] there was no independence, but there was some space to speak up. Today, a share or a like on Facebook can get you arrested. A post can get you sentenced to up to life imprisonment or the death penalty, and all that because of the exploitation of the terrorism article in the penal code," Aouine told The New Arab.
Last year, Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboun expanded Algeria's already broad definition of "terrorism" in article 87 to also include "to work for or to incite by any means, to accede to power or change the system of governance by non-constitutional means" and to "harm the integrity of national territory or to incite doing so, by any means."
Since the establishment of this article, the authorities used it to prosecute an increasing number of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.