In detail: Algerian political refugee Slimane Bouhafs was kidnapped in Tunisia and forcibly extradited. Amid mounting speculation, activists say this sets a worrying precedent for human rights after Kais Saied took power.
Rights groups in Tunisia are demanding an explanation from the authorities on the mysterious kidnapping of Algerian political refugee Slimane Bouhafs and his extradition to his country of origin, where he runs a serious risk of persecution.
Tunisian President Kais Saied on September 3 promised to open an investigation into the suspicious return of Bouhafs, 54, a converted Algerian Christian and refugee recognized by UNHCR, during a meeting with the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. ‘man (LTDH).
His promise to investigate came on the same day that Amnesty International called the Tunisian authorities to “carry out rapid and in-depth investigations into [Bouhafs’] kidnapping, enforced disappearance and enforced return to Algeria ”.
“Slimane Bouhafs, an Algerian Christian convert and refugee recognized by the UNHCR, was reportedly kidnapped in Tunisia on August 25 and later resurfaced in an Algerian police station”
“The launch of the investigation was more of a diplomatic move to end public criticism,” Zine said. Ghébouli, an Algerian political analyst, said The New Arabic. “If the story had grown, it would have created a problem for Tunisia, especially in this period of crisis since the takeover of the president, which has continued indefinitely.”
The circumstances of Bouhafs’ departure from Tunisia remain unclear. He was reportedly abducted by three men in civilian clothes from his home in Tunis on August 25. He disappeared for four days before resurfacing in an Algiers police station and then reappearing in an Algerian court on September 1 facing six undisclosed charges related to “terrorism”.
What made the case somewhat bizarre was the fact that on August 29, the same day the dissident was confirmed in detention, party leader Qalb Tounes and media mogul Nabil Karoui and his brother, Ghazi Karoui, were arrested in Algerian territory on charges of illegally crossing the border. A court in the eastern city of Constantine ordered Karoui’s detention on September 4.
Nabil Karoui was released by a Tunisian court on June 15 after spending more than six months in detention for money laundering and tax evasion.
According to Ghebouli, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra’s frequent visits to Tunis this summer were aimed at “reaching an agreement” whereby Algerian leaders took advantage of President Saied’s vulnerability at the height of the political crisis in the small northern state. African.
On July 25, Saied took control of the country after suspending parliament and sacking the prime minister, later extending his takeover after a month.
“Algeria offered its political support to the Tunisian head of state after the events of July in exchange for the extradition of a political activist,” said the Algerian academic.
There has been growing speculation via the Algerian and Tunisian media that the arrest of the former Tunisian presidential candidate along with his brother came in exchange for the almost simultaneous surrender of the Algerian political refugee.
“After facing two years of unjust imprisonment in Algeria, Slimane Bouhafs went to Tunisia to seek safety, but it seems that he was not far enough from the reach of the Algerian government”
Algerian news site The avant-garde claims that Bouhafs was handed over to Algerian authorities as part of a deal that involved Algeria returning Nabil Karoui to Tunisia while Saied carried out an anti-corruption purge hitting politicians and businessmen.
Civil society organizations in Tunisia, on the other hand, have avoided such guesswork. A few days after the meeting with Saied, the secretary general of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, Béchir Laâbidi, excluded any link between the two cases, saying that the Karoui brothers would be sentenced to three months in prison suspended and expelled. directly to Tunisia according to Algerian law. .
Algeria and Tunisia are bound by an agreement stipulating the extradition by one or the other country “of any person prosecuted or convicted” in the other.
However, neither the Tunisian nor Algerian authorities have made a statement on the Bouhafs affair, nor have they specified whether he had been deported or extradited to Algeria in accordance with a request from the Algerian government, which aroused strong support. concerns about the questionable record.
Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), denounced the silence of the Tunisian state, qualifying it as a “lack of responsibility” in reference to non-compliance with its international commitments.
Under international human rights law, Tunisia is obligated to protect refugees and must not return them to a country where they risk persecution or human rights violations.
In addition, Tunisia should respect its commitments as a State party to the Convention against Torture which explicitly prohibits the extradition of individuals to countries where they would risk being tortured or ill-treated.
It is also required to protect the right to life of individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Ben Amor also criticized the United Nations Agency for Refugees in Tunisia, under whose protection Bouhafs had been placed, for reacting “not quickly” and “passively”.
UNHCR said it was “gravely concerned by reports of the forcible return to his country of origin of a refugee recognized by UNHCR in Tunisia” in an official response to his kidnapping.
“This action was staged within the framework of a security cooperation between the Tunisian and Algerian parties, in full coordination with the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior”, declared the person in charge of the communication of the FTDES. The New Arabic.
He wondered how the Tunisian presidency could ignore the Interior Ministry’s plan, arguing that the head of state currently holds all executive powers.
“We are very concerned that Tunisia has not fulfilled its obligation. This reflects the state of threatened rights and freedoms that we have observed since the President’s coup, ”the spokesperson said.
“There has been growing speculation that the arrest in Algeria of the former Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, accompanied by his brother, came in exchange for the almost simultaneous delivery of Slimane Bouhafs “
“After suffering two years of unjust imprisonment in Algeria, Slimane Bouhafs traveled to Tunisia to seek refuge, but it seems that he was not far enough from the reach of the Algerian government”, declared Amna Guellali, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. in a Press release.
“The Tunisian government shares responsibility for his fate and should reveal its role in his kidnapping and return,” she added.
The Algerian political opponent was sentenced in 2016 to three years in prison in Algeria for Facebook posts deemed offensive to Islam. He was released in 2018 after a presidential pardon and fled to Tunisia, then obtained refugee status in 2020.
Tunisia’s awareness or possible cooperation in the forcible transfer of Bouhafs to Algeria would constitute a serious violation of the principle of “non-refoulement” and of international refugee law, setting a worrying precedent for Tunis.
The incident caused great consternation among Tunisian civil society. At least 40 local rights groups have published a joint statement August 30, demanding “clarification from the [Tunisian] authorities on the mysterious circumstances ”of the Algerian activist. They also noted that the Tunisian constitution specifically prohibits the extradition of political refugees.
While the charges against the activist are still unknown, official sources cited in Algerian media said he was accused of belonging to the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK), a political group that claims the independence of the predominantly Amazigh (Berber) region of Kabylia in the northwest as Algerian authorities define as a terrorist organization.
The forced return of Bouhafs comes against a backdrop of political repression under the pretext of counterterrorism in Algeria. Amnesty reported that since April this year, Algerian authorities have increasingly used general accusations of “terrorism” or “conspiracy against the state” to prosecute anti-Hirak regime activists and human rights defenders.
The High National Security Council (HCNS), chaired by Algerian President Tebboune, announced in May that the opposition political organization Rachad and the separatist group MAK had been designated “terrorist entities”. On August 18, the HCNS also ordered the arrest of all members of the two movements which the authorities accused of having played a role in the devastating fires in Kabylia.
On September 6, a few days after Bouahfs’ appearance before the Algiers court, Algerian police arrested 27 other alleged members of the MAK.
“The Algerian power now wants the public to focus on these two groups [MAK and Rachad] who are both seen as a threat to national security and generally hold them accountable for everything that happens at the national level, ”Ghebouli said.
According to the political analyst, despite suspicions about Tunisia’s role in the Bouhaf incident, little international attention will be paid to the story of an Algerian refugee forcibly returned at a time when the young Arab democracy is grappling with more pressing issues like a political roadmap, institutional legitimacy and the separation of powers.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlexandreBajec