Algeria: a free activist obtains refugee status in Tunisia

(Tunis) – Algerian authorities should immediately release Slimane Bouhafs, an Algerian activist who disappeared a year ago from Tunisia and is currently being held under investigation by an Algerian court, and guarantee his freedom to leave the country. country, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. .

Bouhafs lived in Tunisia as refugee and reappeared in Algerian custody under unclear circumstances. Tunisian authorities should investigate his apparent abduction and forced return to Algeria, and hold anyone found responsible to account.

“Slimane Bouhafs fled Algeria after being persecuted by the authorities, and the UN refugee agency in Tunisia granted him international protection in Tunisia,” said Amna Guellali, deputy director for the Middle East. and North Africa to Amnesty International. “The last place Bouhafs should be is back in an Algerian prison, facing a possible trial.”

On August 25, 2021, unidentified men in civilian clothes showed up at Bouhafs’ home in Tunis, forced him into a car and drove off, the Bouhafs family said, citing witness information. On September 1, 2021, Bouhafs appeared in an Algerian court, where a judge opened a criminal investigation against him for alleged links with the Mouvement pour l’autodétermination de la Kabylie, a group that Algeria considers a terrorist organization. and for posts on Facebook, in a context of increased criminalization of peaceful activism. Algerian authorities previously jailed him for two years for Facebook comments deemed offensive to Islam.

Bouhafs, 55, is an Amazigh (Berber) activist and converted Christian. In 2016, an Algerian court sentenced him to three years in prison under Article 144 bis 2 of the penal code, which criminalizes public insult to the Prophet Muhammad and denigration of Islam. Bouhafs’ family said he suffered ill-treatment in prison. In 2018, he was released by presidential pardon, moved to Tunisia and sought asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A letter of support from an Algerian human rights group that Bouhafs’ family shared with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International says Bouhafs feared Algerian courts would prosecute him again in retaliation for his activism. UNHCR granted him asylum in 2020 as part of an agreement between UNHCR and the Tunisian authorities.

Citing their accounts, Bouhafs’ family said the men who abducted him put a bag over his head, drove him to the Algerian border and to a police station in Algiers, and took him away. threatened during the journey.
For four days, Bouhafs’ family did not know where he was. On August 29, they learned through informal contacts that Bouhafs was being held in a police station in Algiers.

On September 1, an investigating judge at the Sidi M’Hamed Court of First Instance in Algiers placed Bouhafs in pre-trial detention pending investigation on 10 charges under Algeria’s criminal code. They included “membership of a terrorist organization” (article 87 bis 3), “apology for terrorism” (article 87 bis 4), “attack on the integrity of the national territory” (article 79), ” attack on the Prophet [of Islam](article 144 bis 2), “publication of false news” (article 196 bis), “incitement to hatred and racial discrimination” (article 295 bis), and “obtaining foreign funding” (article 95 bis), according to information from Bouhafs’ lawyers that his family shared with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

On September 20, 2021, independent UN human rights experts asked the Tunisian and Algerian governments to explain all the steps they had taken to transfer Bouhafs from Tunisia to Algeria, and any basis of the criminal investigation against him in Algiers.

While Tunisian human rights activists say President Kais Saied made a verbal promise on September 3, 2021 to investigate the alleged kidnapping of Bouhafs, Tunisian authorities have made no official public comment on this. topic.

Algeria responded to UN experts in a letter dated October 7 saying that Algerian security forces in Tébessa, Algeria, near the Tunisian border, arrested Bouhafs on August 27 after he attempted to register. in a hotel without showing ID. They transferred him to authorities in Algiers after discovering evidence linking him to the Movement for the Autodetermination of Kabylie (MAK), Algerian officials said in the letter.

Algeria has designated the group as a terrorist organization since May 2021. In the same letter, Algerian authorities detail the charges against Bouhafs under Algerian law. Authorities said they included messages attacking the Algerian state, its symbols and institutions, as well as messages praising the MAK and about its alleged communications with members of the group, and communicating with members of the group.

However, Algerian authorities have not said anything publicly about how, when and under what circumstances Bouhafs entered Algeria.

“A year has passed since Slimane Bouhafs disappeared from his host country and reappeared in the custody of the country he had fled, without any government knowing whether he had been brought there against his will. “, said Balkees Jarrah, acting deputy. Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisian authorities had a responsibility under international law to protect Bouhafs, but there is no evidence that they sought to investigate the case and hold to account anyone found guilty of violating his human rights. .

Algerian authorities have refused Bouhaf’s requests for provisional release at least four times, according to his family and one of his lawyers.

Algerian authorities are increasingly using the overly broad definition of terrorism contained in Algeria’s criminal code, which President Abdelmadjid Tebboune expanded by decree in 2021, to prosecute activists and human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Watch said. Amnesty International. Authorities have also recently targeted other critics among the Algerian diaspora with travel bans and extraditions.

Algeria and Tunisia have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Any restriction on this right must be proportionate and strictly necessary for a legitimate purpose.

As a party to the United Nations and African Refugee Conventions and the Convention against Torture, Tunisia is bound by the principle of non-refoulement, prohibiting forced returns, expulsions or extraditions – both of refugees to countries where they might face threats to their life or freedom, and of anyone to countries where they risk being tortured. The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits the expulsion of refugees who are lawfully within the territory of a contracting state, except for reasons of national security or public order. Even in such cases, decisions must be made in accordance with due process, unless “compelling reasons of national security require otherwise”.

Articles 6 and 9 of the ICCPR, guaranteeing the rights to life and security, imply an obligation for governments to protect vulnerable people within their jurisdiction, including refugees. Governments should investigate all cases of enforced disappearance and hold accountable anyone found responsible, in line with official guidelines on the implementation of the ICCPR by the UN Human Rights Committee. Article 12 of the ICCPR states that everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own.

About Wesley V. Finley

Check Also

Tunisian Hamama Tribe: Many Stories, One Feeling

adventurous spirit The Hamama tribe was an annoying neighbor to the surrounding tribes, as its …