ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

Algeria: the imprisonment and torture of the regime’s opponents

by Jeremy Keenan (Visiting Professor, School of Law Queen Mary University London) – 14 February 2021

Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, the country has been in the hands of an authoritarian and ruthless military regime. Its presidential elections, designed to give the impression of democracy and civilian rule, are rigged to favour the military’s chosen candidate. The current president, Abdelmadjid Teboune, is regarded by most Algerians as the epitome of such a ‘puppet-president’. He was placed in office on the decision of army strongman General Ahmed Gaïd Salah[1], after a blatantly rigged election on 12 December 2019. Candidates with the temerity to stand for election without the approval of the military and challenge the system, tend to find themselves facing incarceration and possibly worse. The two most recent to challenge the regime in this way, namely Rachid Nekkaz and retired General Ali Gediri[2], are now both in prison.

The regime’s security forces have a long history of brutalising the country’s long-suffering populace. Until October 1988, the army had portrayed itself as an extension of the people. Indeed, its very name – Armée Nationale Populaire – said as much. However, on 5 October 1988, the tie between the army and the people was severed when the army opened fire with live ammunition on civilian protestors in Algiers’ Place des Martyrs. At least 500, and possibly as many as between 1,000 and 1,200 innocent people, were killed.[3] At least 3,000 people across the country were arrested and subjected to severe torture.[4]

In the following decade – the 1990s, an estimated 200,000 people were killed in the country’s civil war, or Black Decade, as it is more appropriately known.[5] With countless atrocities committed by both the Islamist extremists and the State’s security forces, the army received notoriety for a series of gruesome massacres inflicted on civilian communities[6] by army ‘killer squads’ masquerading as Islamist militants.[7] The purpose of these massacres was threefold: to punish communities which had voted for the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) against the regime’s Front de Libération Nationale (FLN); to demonise the Islamists in the eyes of the West and gain Western support in its supposed war against ‘terrorism’; and to clear poor communities from potentially valuable real estate surrounding Algiers for the personal financial benefit of some of the top army and Direction des Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) generals.

Over the last two years, especially since the creation of the popular hirak protest movement in February 2019, which is demanding the transition from a military state to a democratic civilian state, the regime has resorted once again to the increasing repression of its citizens.

However, unlike the October 1988 killings and the massacres of the Black Decade, the current brutality of the regime is being exercised less in the streets[8] and more behind closed doors, in the dungeons of its prisons and the feared interrogation centres of its secret services, such as the notorious Antar barracks in Algiers.

The increased use of detention without trial and torture

Today, we are seeing the regime’s increased and widespread use of detention without trial, which enables the security forces to incarcerate and torture their real and suspected opponents away from the public eye and without recourse to the courts. Indeed, this is what is happening now, not only to such prominent persons as Rachid Nekkaz and to a lesser extent Ali Ghediri, who have attempted to contest the presidency,  but also to dozens of young hirak activists, such as Karim Tabbou, Walid Nekiche, Dalila Touat, Namia Abdelkader and many others, as well as independent journalists merely doing their job, such as Khaled Drareni.

Since the regime started using the strategy of detention without trial to punish hirakists, there have been a growing number of testimonies, especially through late 2019 and 2020, of victims – ‘prisoners of conscience’ – being subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse and torture, all of which are expressly forbidden by the country’s legal codes and constitution. The reports of torture indicate the frequent use of sexual abuse and humiliation, notably multiple rapes, and extensive use of ‘white torture’, notably solitary confinement, other forms of sensory deprivation, confined cell and exercise space, the lack of proper medical care and the denial of access to family and lawyers. An analysis of these testimonies[9] strongly suggests that torture is used more as a form or punishment and for the sadistic pleasure of the abusers than to extract information.

The fact there have been no known deaths of hirak prisoners of conscience in detention is probably as much a matter of luck as deliberation. Indeed, some prisoners, amongst the best known of whom have been Lakhdar Bouregaâ[10], retired general Hocine Benhadid[11] and Said Chitour[12], have been released at the point when their health had reached such dire states as a result of lack of proper medical treatment and care, that the victims’ families and lawyers were warning of their likely imminent deaths. Their deaths in prison, especially when they had never faced a proper trial, would have caused immense local anger and international condemnation

Although there has been a marked increase in repression since the start of the hirak, there is longstanding historic precedent of the abuse and death in incarceration of critics and opponents of the regime.  Two of the most shocking recent cases were the deaths of Mohamed Tamalt in December 2016 and Kamel Eddine Fekhar in May 2019.

The death of Mohamed Tamalt

Mohamed Tamalt died in the Lamine Debaghine Hospital in Bab El Oued on 11 December 2016 at the age of 42.  He had gone to England as a postgraduate student and became an independent journalist writing a blog on Algeria, which was critical of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his regime.

Tamalt was arrested in Algiers on 27 June 2016 when he returned home to visit his ill mother. Before leaving England, he had received assurances from an Algerian government member of parliament that it would be safe for him to return. However, on his arrival at Algiers’ airport, he was arrested and taken to the secret services’ Antar interrogation centre, where he was held for 24 hours while interrogated on his writings., He was then taken to the Sidi M’hamed court, which ordered him to be held in pre-trial detention. In a summary trial on 11 July, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined 200,000 dinars for “having offended the person of the President and ministers” through publications on his blog.

By the time of his trial, Tamalt had been on a hunger strike since 28 June to protest his detention which was not legally justified. Articles 144 bis and 146 of the Criminal Code, on the basis of which he was prosecuted, provide only for a fine and not a prison sentence. Nevertheless, his appeal in the court of Algiers two months later was rejected

Tamalt was a diabetic, and as soon as he started his hunger strike, his health deteriorated. Constant calls and appeals by his lawyers and family to the judicial authorities received no response. When Tamalt fell into a coma on 1 August, the prison administration transferred him to the Lamine Debaghine hospital in Bab El Oued. He died four and a half months later, without recovering consciousness, allegedly of “complications related to his hunger strike by a patient suffering from diabetes”.

However, when Tamalt was transferred to the hospital, his brother, Abdelkader, noted that he had stitches in his head. Abdelkader notified the media, saying that his brother could not have fallen, as the authorities had told him, as he was in a wheelchair, but had been beaten. With Tamalt’s medical records being denied to his lawyers and his family, the wounds to his head went unexplained, although the prison authorities implied that the stitches in his head were the result of neurosurgery rather than a beating. Abdelkader was also denied further visits to the hospital.

News of Tamalt’s death spread through the social and print media like wildfire, causing widespread anger on the ‘street’, where the general tone was that Tamalt had been “murdered by the state’s politicised judiciary”. Indeed, one of Tamalt’s lawyers, Bachir Mechri, stated that there was massive evidence that Tamalt “was the subject of a planned homicide executed by the prison administration to get rid of his tongue and pen.” He added: “They took revenge on the journalist on behalf of the President, who must know that under his orders people are damaging his image by committing such crimes.”[13]

The key points of Mechri’s dossier were that Tamalt was charged under articles of the criminal code that provide only for a fine, not a prison sentence. Once detained, he was repeatedly moved from prison to prison and then hospital in a deliberate way so that his lawyers could not visit him. Administrative documents were deliberately delayed and wrongly delivered by the authorities. There was strong evidence that he was subjected to beatings, insults, humiliations and strangulation by prison officials. He was also denied key medical treatment. Mechri described how, when he visited him on 17 August, he found him “as a mass of flesh wrapped in a tissue, unconscious to the point of not recognising me.”[14]

Initially, Tamalt’s brother said he did not want an autopsy on the grounds that it would be carried out by the forensic doctor at the Lamine Débaghine hospital, who could not be trusted, as he had already failed to explain the stitches in Tamalt’s head. However, the prosecutor’s office at Koléa,[15] where Abdelkader Tamalt had filed a complaint against the prison guards for “ill-treatment”, stepped in and ordered an autopsy.

The result was that Tamalt’s body was dissected by the forensic doctors at the Lamine Debaghine hospital. The shocking state in which the body was released to Abdelkader after the autopsy led Salima Tlemçani, one of Algeria’s leading journalists, to write a detailed report on how the authorities had treated Tamalt’s body.[16] It was handed over to Abdelkader, bloodied, unwashed and simply covered with a blanket and with no coffin or ambulance available. Abdelkader, not knowing what to do, finally found a coffin at a mosque and a vehicle in which to transport the body. However, the body was still bleeding, forcing Abdelkader to take the body to a neighbour’s house where it was washed. However, as the hospital had not treated the body properly, it was still leaking blood on the following day, the day of the burial, requiring further washing and new shrouds before eventually being taken to the Bourouba cemetery, accompanied by a massive, angry crowd.

The international press, including the New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais and El Mundo, along with international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Reporters sans frontières (RSF) and Human Right Watch, all issued strong statements condemning the Algerian regime.[17]

The death of Kamel Eddine Fekhar[18]

Kamal Eddine Fekhar was a medical doctor, the founder of Tifawt, a foundation that works to protect and promote the rights of the Amazigh (Berber) people, and a member of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH). He lived in the Saharan city of Ghardaia, 600 kms south of Algiers, and died at the Frantz Fanon hospital in Blida on the morning of 28 May as a result of medical negligence while on a hunger strike in prison. He had been transferred to Blida from the prison in Ghardaia, along with his compatriot, Aouf Hajj Brahim, who was also being held in arbitrary detention under the same inhumane conditions.

Ghardaia and its Mozabite population had been under attack from state thugs (baltagiyas), employed by the Algerian security and intelligence services, since around 2014, as a result of its citizens’ objections to the city being used as a centre for trans-Saharan drug traffickers and other criminals protected by the Algerian security forces.

Fekhar had been denouncing the repressive tactics of the regime against the local Mozabite people, which had already resulted in the loss of many lives. He likened the climate of terror and the authorities’ discrimination against the Mozabites to apartheid.

In July 2015, Fekhar was arrested and taken into pre-trial detention, after he had written to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to draw his attention to the violence being instigated in Ghardaia by the regime.[19]

In March 2016, Fekhar’s family took advantage of Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Algeria, calling on him to intervene with the Algerian government for Kamel Eddine Fekhar’s release from the arbitrary imprisonment to which he had been subjected for the previous eight months.

On 25 March 2019, Fekhar, who had already survived several arrests and periods of arbitrary detention without trial, made a video that was shared on the Facebook page of his lawyer, Salah Dabouz, in which he spoke of the appalling situation that had been prevailing in Ghardaia over several years. Six days later, Fekhar, along with his two children, and Hadj Ibrahim Aouf, a local trade unionist and human rights activist, were arrested, following a complaint by Ghardaia’s general prosecutor, for criticising public institutions, namely the military, Parliament and the judiciary.

On being detained in Ghardaia’s prison without trial, both Fekhar and Aouf declared an open-ended hunger strike to protest against their arbitrary arrest. The health of both men rapidly deteriorated as a result of the hunger strike and the prison’s medical negligence

On 8 April 2019, Fekhar’s lawyer, Salah Dabouz, was arrested by security forces during a meeting in a restaurant in Algiers. He was taken to Ghardaia, 600 kms to the south, where he was questioned about his Facebook posts criticising the judiciary. He was released the next day but kept under “administrative observation”. As part of this procedure, he had to appear at the police station in Ghardaia every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday in what was a clear attempt to prevent him from fulfilling his legal human rights work in Algiers and also from participating in the hirak protests in the capital.[20]

On 27 April 2019, both Fekhar and Aouf were moved to Ghardaia’s hospital due to their rapidly deteriorating health. They were put in the hospital’s prison ward where they received poor medical care. Their lawyer, Salah Dabouz, visited them and reported the inhumane conditions of the prison ward. Both men were chained to their beds and suffering from skin infections as a result of poor hygiene and with their repeated requests to see a doctor being rejected.

News of Kamel Eddine Fekhar’s death caused immediate outrage across Algeria and abroad. The hirak called him a “martyr of the revolution”. while social media networks said that the withholding of medical treatment was “murder”. Salah Dabouz issued a statement saying that Fekhar was the victim of a ruthless and iniquitous system which had planned his death. He also laid charges against several prominent members of the Justice department and the administration in Ghardaia for causing his death. Said Sadi, the former leader of the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), Algeria’s oldest opposition party, of which Fekhar was a member, said that Fekhar’s death “was not an accident”.

On the day after Fekhar’s death, the authorities, no doubt fearing a second death on their hands and a possibly dangerous explosion of public outrage, released Fekhar’s cellmate, Hadj Aouf Brahim.

Algeria’s ‘virtual’ legal system

A question facing many of those involved in addressing human rights abuses in Algeria, such as international human Rights NGOs and international lawyers, is: how is it possible for such extreme abuse of human rights, such as torture, to be practiced so widely in a country whose legal code, constitution and membership of numerous international human rights conventions forbids such abuse?

This question is especially pertinent in the current political climate, which has seen: the emergence of the hirak; the regime’s increasing use of repression; the politicisation of the courts; the increasing use of detention without trial; the increased imprisonment of prisoners of conscience; and the increased use of torture.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that critics and opponents of the Algerian regime, especially the approximately 90 current ‘prisoners of conscience’, including internationally prominent figures such as Rachid Nekkaz, cannot rely on the protection afforded, at least theoretically, by Algeria’s legal code, its Constitution and its membership of numerous international human rights conventions.

The reason for this is because Algeria effectively has two systems of law: a ‘virtual’ system and a ‘real’ system. This distinction is vital for understanding how and why Algeria is able to deceive the international community and escape censure for the most appalling abuses of human rights.

Algeria’s dual legal system and practice of torture were addressed and explained by the internationally celebrated Algerian lawyer, Brahim Taouti, in his seminal work, La Torture dans l’Algérie d’Aujourdhui (Torture in Today’s Algeria). first published in 2009 and updated in 2018.[21]

The essence of Taouti’s explication is that Algeria has two systems of law. One is set out in the country’s legal codes, its Constitution (The Basic Law), its key institutions, such as the Presidency, Parliament, courts, etc., and Algeria’s membership of most international conventions that safeguard individuals from torture and other such abuses. Taouti refers to this system as Algeria’s ‘virtual’ law. It serves as a showcase of a potentially codified virtual law, designed for international consumption and to deceive the international community. It is also used by the regime, when convenient, for its own purposes. The second system of law is Algeria’s ‘real’ law. This allows for the practice of torture with impunity by almost any state officials as well as the abuse of all other human rights.

This second system of law, Taouti’s “real law”, which is practiced by the authorities on a daily basis, allows for and condones even the most extreme abuses of human rights.

The European Parliament’s condemnation of Algeria’s abuse of human rights

During the Black Decade of the 1990s, the regime ignored all external concern for, and criticism of, the atrocities being committed by its security services, notably the massacres and the ‘disappearance’ of some 18,000 persons.  The country’s rulers seemed quite resigned, if not even content, for much of the Western world to regard Algeria as a ‘pariah state’. Over the last few years, as the case studies outlined above suggest, the regime is once again showing the same disregard and contempt for foreign opinion and the international community as it did during the 1990s, as the country reverts once more to pariah status.

The regime’s disdain for international opinion has been clearly demonstrated in the way that it has responded to the European Parliament’s emergency Resolution of 26 November 2020, which condemned the Algerian regime for its liberticidal practices and relentless repression of human rights.[22]

Algeria’s response to the European Parliament’s Resolution was one of dismissive anger, condemning the EP for meddling in its domestic affairs. Indeed, the regime demonstrated its intention to ignore this attack on its supposed sovereignty by further intensifying repression within the country.

Nevertheless, no matter how loudly the Algerian regime might protest, the European Parliament, although not having much raw power, does have influence.[23]  The Resolution has at least drawn the attention of most of the world’s major institutions and governments to the nature and extent of repression in Algeria; the peaceful, popular resistance of its people and the plight of the political detainees incarcerated in Algerian’s prisons.

Concern for Rachid Nekkaz

While the European Parliament’s Resolution does hold out a glimmer of hope for Algeria’s ‘prisoners of conscience’, the regime’s defiance and intensification of repression, set against the background of the recent deaths of Mohamed Tamalt and Kamel Eddine Fekhar, are focusing local and international concern on the situations of the 90 or so political prisoners still incarcerated.

There is insufficient evidence and knowledge of what is going on inside Algeria’s prisons to know whether well-known prisoners, such as the likes of Hocine Benhadid, Lakhdar Bouregaâ, Karim Tabbou, Khaled Drareni and Kamel Eddine Fekhar are singled out for better or more punitive treatment because of their high profiles. More worrying is that many previously less well-known prisoners, such as Walid Nekiche and Mohamed Tamalt, have become prominent names simply because of the media coverage given to their abuse, torture and/or death.

Walid is the latest example of such prominence.  A 24-year old student from a village in Tizi Ouzou, Nekiche was arrested on 26 November 2019 during a peaceful student protest and charged with “participating in a conspiracy to incite citizens or inhabitants to take up arms against the authority of the state and organise a secret way of remote communication with the purpose of undermining national security”, … “undermining security and national unity” and  “distributing and possessing leaflets to undermine the interest of the country”. After 14 months in pre-trial detention, his trial began on 1 February 2021 in Algiers’ Dar el Beida court. It opened with the prosecution’s unprecedented request that Nekiche should serve life imprisonment.

The trial quickly made headlines, both in Algeria and abroad, as Nekiche’s defence lawyer, Nabila Smaïl, sent shockwaves around the court. After revealing that the State had not been able to produce a scrap of evidence against Nekiche, except for a confession to the police, Smaïl proceeded to tell the court how that confession had been extracted under torture. The court gasped as Nekiche then proceeded to tell the court of the details of his torture, including multiple rapes.[24] Even more shocking, was to learn that the authorities had ignored the reports that Nekiche’s lawyers had submitted to the judicial and prison authorities detailing Nekiche’s torture and demanding that Nekiche be seen by a doctor to check on the abuse he had suffered.[25] The trial was over in a day, with Nekiche being sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and a small fine for the “distribution and possession of leaflets harmful to the country’s interest”. As he had already spent 14 months in prison, he was immediately released,

The files of Walid Nekiche, Rachid Nekkaz and many other Algerian ‘prisoners of conscience’ are currently on the desk of Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Irrespective of the cause of prominence and the question of whether well-known detainees receive greater or lesser abuse, warning bells have been ringing since late January (2021) over the circumstances surrounding the imprisonment and state of health of Rachid Nekkaz, the most internationally well-known and prominent of all the regime’s current detainees. Indeed, the 49-year old Rached Nekkaz, already twice nominated for the coveted Nobel Peace Prize,[26] presents the regime with a novel situation in that his many high-profile fights for peace and constitutional freedom have made him something of an international celebrity. How will the Algerian regime manage the incarceration of such a celebrity? And how will the world respond if he meets his death through lack of proper medical treatment while in detention?

Rachid Nekkaz has now been incarcerated for over 14 months without trial. He was arrested on 4 December 2019 at 7:30 am by order of the Algerian army after disembarking from a flight at Algiers’ international airport. Upon being presented to a judge, he was immediately thrown into El Harrach prison before being transferred to Koléa prison (Tipaza). The judge indicated to him that he risked the death penalty because of two videos in which he had called for the boycott of the presidential elections planned for 12 December 2019.[27]

Prosecuted for “incitement to bear arms against state officials”, “incitement to unarmed assembly” and “Facebook publications that may harm the national interest,” Rachid Nekkaz has not been tried since his arrest. His arrest warrant was unfairly extended and his latest request for provisional release was rejected on 20 January 2021 by the indictment chamber of the Algiers court.

On 26 January 2021, almost 14 months after his arrest, Rachid Nekkaz was transferred to El Abiodh Sidi Cheikh prison in El Bayadh wilaya, almost 800 kms southwest of Algiers and deep into the northern Sahara, where he is reported to be in a deteriorating state of health with suspected prostate cancer and a tumour in his liver.[28] He is determined to start a hunger strike on 19 February to mark the second anniversary of the hirak.

Rachid Nekkaz is known to suffer from the cold. According to his letter from prison, his transfer to El Abiodh Sidi Sheikh prison took place in an icy van and lasted more than nine hours, during which he was handcuffed throughout and escorted by eight 4X4 vehicles of the gendarmerie. At the prison, he was placed in solitary confinement with a two-metre square exercise yard and difficult, inhumane prison conditions,

Rachid Nekkaz was born in France in 1972, the ninth child of illiterate Algerian parents, an Arabic father and a Kabyle mother, in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris, in which he lived for some 25 years.  Educated at the Sorbonne and with a Master’s degree in history, and soon to become a highly successful entrepreneur, with a self-made fortune, Rachid grew up with relatively little knowledge of his country of origin.

Indeed, Rachid Nekkaz did not venture directly into Algerian politics in Algeria itself until 2013.  When he first presented himself to the Algerian public in 2013, he was therefore a totally unknown character. Today, eight years later, he is popularly known by many Algerians as the “midwife” or “father” of Algeria’s current revolutionary conscience.

From his early twenties, Rachid Nekkaz has been a civil rights activist. Even before immersing himself in Algeria in 2013, he had already become known internationally as an idealist and champion of the rights and freedoms of individuals and cultures, especially Islamic culture. As his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nomination underlined, Rachid Nekkaz has always followed and defended the values and principles dear to Voltaire, the French philosopher: “Even if I do not share your opinion, I will do everything in my power to allow you to express your ideas.”

After the attacks on the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon Building of 11 September 2001, Nekkaz founded the Forum des Citoyens des Cultures Musulmanes to combat prejudices against the Muslims of France through education, communication and sensitisation.

In 2007, he decided to be the first Muslim candidate for the Presidential elections in France, to give hope to young suburban youth who had been abandoned by the French Government.

The following year, Rachid Nekkaz went on a hunger strike for 20 days, camped outside a French prison, to protest against the imprisonment and seven-year sentencing without proof, of Karim Achoui, a lawyer of Algerian origin alleged to have helped one of his clients to escape from prison. He also paid Achoui’s bail of €50,000 from his personal funds, so that he could be granted conditional freedom while awaiting his appeal trial. During that trial, Nekkaz made a public promise to pay €1,000,000 to anyone who could present irrefutable evidence of Karim Achoui’s guilt.  Nobody claimed the prize. Two days later, Achoui was acquitted of any crime.

In 2009, Rachid Nekkaz took up the cause of the Uighurs in China. As the spokesperson of the organisation “Peace Without Borders”, he held a demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy in Paris to protest against the death sentence of 17 young Tibetans and Uighurs. He then travelled to Urumqi (China), the Uyghurs’ capital, where over 1,000 people had been brutally killed by the Chinese army in July 2008, to hold a press conference at the town’s mosque. Unsurprisingly, Nekkaz was imprisoned and deported.

Rachid Nekkaz’s activism was not restricted to Muslim issues. When the French government decided in 2011 to expel hundreds of ROMA families to Romania and Bulgaria, Nekkaz protested against this serious infringement of human rights, He decided to buy 16 hectares of land in the Auvergne, the original region of France’s Interior Minister, and install 21 ROMA families on it. His aim was to demonstrate that the ROMA people were at home throughout Europe, even in the Interior Minister’s native region.

Rachid Nekkaz really came to global prominence in 2010, following the passing of the law in France, then in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Austria, which banned the wearing of the niqab in public places. Nekkaz’s response to this attack on the freedom of women to express their own cultural beliefs in pubic was to start a fund, the Fonds de défense de la liberté et de la laïcité, primed with one million euros of his own money, to pay the fines of women charged under this law. Four days later, the French State opened an aggressive audit of the finances of both Rachid Nekkaz and his wife. But Nekkaz had already struck: 10,000 articles in 87 countries had spoken of his action.[29]

Amidst these and many other such campaigns, Rachid Nekkaz never lost sight of the injustices and corruption of the Algerian regime. He was constantly protesting and leading demonstrations outside the wealthy properties in Paris and Switzerland that had been bought with embezzled funds by Algeria’s political and military leaders and oligarchs, whom he called publicly the “The Mafia of 40 Thieves“. He was frequently roughly handled by French police and Algerian thugs, and once quite seriously beaten by the son of a former Algerian minister and Parisien property owner, requiring hospitalisation.[30]

No longer adhering to the political principles guiding French policy, Rachid Nekkaz decided in 2013 to formally request the President of the Republic, François Hollande, to allow him to renounce his French nationality.  The request was granted on 22 August 2013.

Since then, and with Algeria’s 2014 presidential election approaching, Rachid Nekkaz has invested his personal wealth and energy tirelessly into Algerian politics and defending fundamental liberties in Algeria.

Even though little known in Algeria at the outset, Rachid Nekkaz, using his business technical skills and media knowledge, quickly established a large and growing following amongst Algeria’s youth, forging a strong reputation as an independent activist fighting corruption and speaking up against the Bouteflika dictatorship.

In 2014, he decided to stand in the Algerian presidential elections, representing Algerian Youth and advocating peaceful change. His extraordinary and almost instant popularity with the youth alarmed the regime, especially when it became apparent that he had been able to acquire the 60,000 supportive signatures legally required to validate his candidacy: a hurdle designed to trip up almost all candidates other than those supported by the regime and its approved political parties.

Having ‘beaten the system’, Rachid Nekkaz’s official candidacy was prevented by the convenient ‘theft’, on 4 March 2014, of the boxes containing his 62,000 signatures from the premises of Algeria’s Constitutional Council.

In May 2014, Rachid Nekkaz created a political party, the Mouvement pour la jeunesse et le changement (MJC) (Movement for Youth and Change), a central-leftist party. Unsurprisingly, and despite 80,000 signatures from prospective supporters, MJC was denied official recognition by the State, an essential requirement to conduct political activity legally.

Nekkaz nevertheless continued his fight for democracy, organising between November 2014 and November 2016, four long walking treks through Algeria, covering a total of  3,124 kilometers, during which he held peaceful rallies and meetings along the way, advocating peaceful change and the fight against corruption. This was a style of political activism with which the regime and its security forces were unaccustomed, with the result that he was arrested and taken into custody 21 times by the police and subjected to 6 judicial actions. These Pavlovian reactions by the regime merely ensured that his ‘walks’ and his message received even greater media publicity.[31]

As a result of this peaceful struggle, Rachid Nekkaz was elected Algeria’s “Politician of the Year” by the press and readers in both 2014 and 2016.

Rachid Nekkaz also founded the “Hassiba Human Rights League” in 2017, which pays fines of human rights activists, Youtubers and Facebookers prosecuted by the Algerian judicial system.

With a Facebook following of more than 1.8 million, Rachid Nekkaz had become something of a political phenomenon in Algeria and a very big thorn in the side of the regime.

The regime realised that it had to take even more drastic action to stop Rachid Nekkaz mounting an even bigger challenge to the political system and the presidency. Accordingly, in the same way as he had forced new laws onto the statute books in France, so he forced the regime to amend the Algerian Constitution. In February 2016, the regime added articles 51 and 73 to the new Constitution, requiring candidates to reside, and to have always resided, exclusively in Algeria.

Rachid Nekkaz’s candidacy for the 2019 presidential elections was therefore invalided from before the outset. Even so, before the hirak demonstrations effectively forced the postponement and then cancelation of that election, it was Rachid Nekkaz who held the limelight throughout the early election campaign. The power of his Facebook page had become so huge that, with his mere announcement of a trip to a city – Khenchela, Batna or Tébessa, in the East as in the West – 10,000 to 20,000 people came on to the streets to greet and support him. On 21 February, a day before the first hirak demonstration, the front-page headline of French-language newspaper El Watan read: “Un phénomène nommé Nekkaz” (A phenomenon called Nekkaz)[32].

As with the hirak demonstrations, it was clear that Rachid Nekkaz’s gatherings were placing the regime and its security forces in a quandary? How could the phenomenon of Nekkaz be stopped?

The hirak demonstrations were finally quelled, at least for the time being, in March 2020 by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nekkaz was quelled, also for the time being, by his arrest on 4 December 2019 as he stepped off his flight at Algiers’ international airport.

But, why wait so long before imprisoning Rachid Nekkaz? Why did the regime not silence him in those early years when he was building up such a following in Algeria? One possible explanation as to why he was not imprisoned in those early years is because of the Algerian authorities’ awareness of the prestige Rachid Nekkaz had acquired throughout the Muslim world, where his fight for the freedom of women to wear (or not to wear) the niqab was very well-known and appreciated, both in the Sunni and Shia worlds. The Algerian regime was perhaps afraid of creating a martyr not just in Algeria but across the Muslim world.

So, why arrest and imprison him now? What, if anything, has changed?

Several things have changed. One is Algeria’s standing in the Arab World, Since the ousting of the Bouteflika clan, and especially during the Tebboune presidency, Algeria’s relations with most of the Arab world, as well as Africa, have deteriorated quite dramatically for multiple reasons. At this particular moment, Algeria has little more to lose on those fronts.

Second: the Algerian regime has become increasingly more ruthless, especially over the last year or more, towards its critics and perceived opponents. This trend has coincided with the worrying return to power and influence of many of the more ruthless generals of the Black Fecade, especially those in the former DRS.

Thirdly, as the county’s political and economic crises have deepened, especially over the last year or two, so the regime has become more fractured, inward-looking, incompetent and dangerously irresponsible.

Finally, and related to the above points, the regime’s response to the European Parliament’s emergency resolution of November 2020, and to a number of other actions abroad, suggests that the regime is now paying being much less attention to external opinion.

As to the question of what will happen to Rachid Nekkaz now that he has been transferred to a prison deep into the desert, 125 kms from the nearest hospital and where even his lawyers will have difficulty in reaching him, the answer will probably become clearer over the next few weeks as we see if , and to what extent, the regime responds to the national and international efforts being made to effect his release.

Rachid Nekkaz’s family and lawyers have been led to believe that the regime is claiming to have at least one and possibly two videos in which Rachid Nekkaz is alleged to advocate violence against the regime. Although there are some 1,700 Facebook videos of Nekkaz’s rallies and addresses, there is not one in which Nekkaz advocates such action. Indeed, his whole political philosophy and his teaching, like that of the hirak, is about accomplishing change peacefully.

If the State does try and produce such evidence, it will be fake. In fact, producing such evidence in a court of law – even an Algerian one – could be problematic for the regime. This is because Rachid Nekkaz’s lawyers will no doubt not only argue that the video evidence is fraudulent but reveal that those responsible for the fraud have also been dismissed, or are in the process of being dismissed, on multiple charges of corruption and fraud.

The fake video would almost certainly have been manufactured under the authority of the Army’s department of communications, information systems and electronic warfare and, more specifically, by its Direction Générale du Renseignement Technique (DGRT) (a.k.a. DRT), its wiretapping and interception service.

Evidence presented by either of these two bodies is hardly likely to stand up in court. This is because the former head of the army’s department of communications, information systems and electronic warfare, General Abdelkader Lachkhem, was dismissed by order of a presidential decree signed on 27 June 2020 and published some two months later.  Lachkhem, is currently believed to be in prison facing numerous charges of corruption. Worse still for the regime are the problems at the head of the DGRT. On 24 April 2019, its head, General Tabet, was brought before the military court in Blida and sacked. His successor, General Smaïn Adjafène, is currently at the heart of a vast anti-corruption investigation, with the revealed details of his corrupt and fraudulent behaviour suggesting that he is likely to be dismissed and imprisoned at any moment.  In short, the State might not welcome such witnesses being called and subjected to examination by Nekkaz’s lawyers.

However, it would be dangerous to speculate in that regard, other than to say that should Rachid Nekkaz die while in detention, whether from his hunger strike, cancer or any other cause, it will be regarded internationally as a deliberate State homicide, for which Algeria, now that America has a new administration, could pay a heavy price.



[1] Gaïd Salah died unexpectedly on 23 December 2019, 11 days after the election.

[2] Retired General Ali Ghediri has been in pre-trial detention for 20 months, since June 2019, despite the prosecution having what Ghediri’s defence lawyers have described as an ‘empty file’.  The indictment chamber of the Court of Algiers said on 7 February 2021 that it would give its verdict within 21 days. It can be anticipated that Ghediri will follow the usual route of being found guilty on one or other of the trumped-up charges against him and then released on the grounds of time served.

[3] The official number of deaths was put at around 160.

[4] The background to the social unrest and demonstrations was the increase in unemployment and decline of living standards caused by the collapse in world oil prices. Algeria was and still is a rentier state, almost wholly dependent on hydrocarbons exports. Between 1985 and 1987, Algeria’s oil revenues fell by 40 percent from $13 billion to $8 billion.

[5] The ‘civil war’ or ‘Black Decade’ is often referred to as the ‘Dirty War’ after Habib Souaïdia’s book, La Sale Guerre, La Découverte, 2001.

[6] These massacres were thoroughly investigated and documented by Youcef Bedjaoui, Abbas Aroua and Meziane Air-Larbi (Eds)., An Inquiry to the Algerian Massacres. Hoggar, (1999), 1,473p.

[7] The regime’s intelligence service, the Direction des Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), formerly the Sécurité Militaire (SM), was heavily involved in the perpetration of these massacres. The head of the DRS at that time, General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediène, now aged 81, is still exerting considerable influence within the regime, with many of his top generals from the 1990s currently re-installed in key security posts.

[8] With a few exceptions, the security forces have shown considerable restraint in the use of violence against the public hirak demonstrations.  While this strategy is partly to prevent the hirak from claiming all the moral high ground, it is also because the regime cannot count on the loyalty of its soldiers, police or gendarmes if they are ordered to use violence against unarmed civilians.

[9] These testimonies have been given on the condition of anonymity, to protect them from reprisals by the authorities.

[10] Lakhdar Bouregaâ, a hero (‘moudjahid’) of the war of Independence, was imprisoned on June 30 2019 on trumped up charges of “contempt of body” and “participation in the demoraliaation of the army aimed at harming the national defence national”, after participating in hirak marches. Given his age (87), he was dissuaded by his lawyers from going on a hunger strike. On 22 October 2019, he refused to answer questions by the magistrate reviewing his case, saying the government was illegitimate. Six days later, the court renewed his sentence for four months. On 5 November, he was hospitalised for surgery to remove a “bowel obstruction”. He was officially released from prison on 5 January 2020, probably because the regime did not want to turn him into a martyr by having him die in prison. However, in March, the regime tried to re-sentence him and in May fined 100,000 Dinars (US$750) for “attacking public bodies”. He died of Covid-19 on 4 November 2020.

[11] After two long periods of incarceration without trial, for “attacking state institutions and demoralising the army”, retired General Hocine Benhadid. who had renounced his commission in 1996 as a result of the army atrocities, was committed to a further period of imprisonment in October 2019, but then released from prison on grounds of extreme ill health (cancer) and in the face of widespread public protests. He was allowed to go to Paris for medical treatment. In January 2020, he was acquitted of the trumped-up charges against him and rehabilitated by the army in July 2020.

[12] Said Chitour was released from prison on 11 November 2018 after spending 16 months in pre-trial detention and with his health deteriorating seriously. Chitour worked as an independent journalist and fixer for much of the international media. He was charged on trumped up charges of espionage, allegedly for “leaking classified documents” to foreign diplomats. However, the regime never produced any evidence and it is widely believed that Chitour was ‘silenced’ in an attempt to keep information about Algeria out of the international press. When finally brought before a criminal court on 11 November 2018, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison, with one year suspended. However, as he had already been in prison for 16 months, he was released.

[13] “Il réclame une enquête impartiale: L’avocat de Tamalt accuse.” El Watan, le 20 décembre 2016. Accessed at:

[14] Ibid.

[15] Koléa is in Tipaza wilaya, 17 miles from Algiers.

[16] Salima Tlemçani, “Les avocats réclament le dossier medical.” El Watan, le 13 décembre 2016.  Accessed at:

[17] The well-known chronicler, Karl Zéro, devoted his column ‘Si j’étais …’  on France Info to Mohamed Tamalt. He wrote: ‘If I were Mohamed Tamalt, I would be an Algerian journalist who had just died in prison. I was incarcerated for insulting the Algerian president …’ He then described Algerians as ‘the Walking Dead in the land of black gold’,  and concluded by saying: “I expect nothing from France, for she will do nothing. I do not expect anything from Algeria, because she will never apologize. I’m just waiting for Algerians to wake up from a nightmare that has been going on for 54 years.’ Karl Zéro, “Si j’étais… Mohamed Tamalt”. Franceinfo, Radio France, 13.12.2016. Accessed at:

[18] There are multiple reports on Kamal Eddine Fekhar’s imprisonment and death at the hands of the Algerian authorities. See, for example: “Kamal Eddine Fekhar dies of medical negligence on hunger strike, while targeting of Human Rights Defenders continues.” Front Line Defenders, 29 May 2019. Accessed at:; “Anger over death of Algerian hunger-striking activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar”. BBC, 29 May 2019. Accessed at:; “Algérie: mort en prison de Kamel Eddine Fekhar, militant des droits de l’homme”. RFI, 29 Mai 2019. Accessed at:

[19] On that occasion, the security forces, led by the DRS, had instigated inter-ethnic violence in the town of Guerara just to the north of the city of Ghardaia, in which some 20 people had been killed.

[20] This is the first time since 1962 (independence) that this administrative procedure had been used by the Algerian authorities. It reflected their attempt to prevent the human rights defender from attending his court hearings and work as a human rights lawyer in the capital.

[21] Rrahim Taouti, “La Torture dans l’Algérie d’Aujourd’hui”. Updated 4 June 2018. Algeria Watch. Accessed at:

[22] The Resolution received a significant majority vote: 669 MEPs voted in favour and only 3 against, with 22 abstaining. The full text of the resolution is available at :

[23] The text of this Resolution is transmitted to; the Vice-President of the Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; the Council; the Commission; the governments and the parliaments of the member states; the European Union delegation in Algiers; the Algerian government; the United Nations Secretary-General; the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe.

[24] Nekiche’s sexual abuse and torture were inflicted by the Direction Générale de la Sécurité intérieure (DGSI) at Algiers’ Antar barracks, the original headquarters and interrogation centre of the old DRS, and still widely used for interrogation and torture.

[25] Nabila Smaïl told the court that it was Nekiche’s torturers and those in the justice system who had refused to pursue the registered complaints of torture who should be in court facing prosecution. An investigation by the prosecutor’s office is currently under way but is not expected to lead to prosecutions or changes in the system.

[26] Rachid Nekkaz was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in both 2018 and 2019. It is understood that a third nomination is in preparation.

[27] Several opposition parties and social movements also called for the boycott of the elections. The official turnout figure was 23%. However, detailed information from observers on the ground indicates that the real turnout was probably in the 8%-10% range.

[28] Rachid Nekkaz’s transfer to El Abiodh Sidi Sheikh prison would appear to be vindictive. According to his defence collective, Nekkaz announced on 14 January the filing of an official complaint against the Minister of Justice, Belkacem Zeghmati, in which he accused the minister of “accepting a post illegally”, “undermining the independence of the judiciary”, and “abuse of power”.

[29] On 18 October 2016, the French Parliament passed a law that banned Rachid Nekkaz himself from paying fines on behalf of women prosecuted for wearing the niqab. Since then, Rachid Nekkaz has risked 6 months imprisonment and a fine of €45,000 each time he pays a fine.

[30] For example, on 20 January 2017, Rachid Nekkaz was condemned by a Paris court to two months imprisonment following a (registered and approved) public street demonstration against the corrupt actions of Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, whose daughter had bought an apartment valued at one million euros on Paris’ Champs-Elysées with illegally acquired funds. Sellal is currently serving several prison sentences for corruption.

[31] Between 2013 and his current incarceration, Rachid Nekkaz organised no less than 155 demonstrations in Algeria and in Europe against Algerian corruption. He has also been subjected to 75 arrests by the Algerian police, 6 court appearances, two years of illegal tracking and effective house arrest (2016-2018). In addition, he has been kidnapped (literally snatched from the street or from his car) five times by Algerian security forces. For much of this time, 15 policemen diligently tracked Nekkaz everywhere he went, even keeping guard over the entrance to his house day and night, to try and minimise his contact with Algerian people. The fact that Nekkaz documented, videoed and broadcasted this prolonged pantomime merely increased his popular support.

[32] “Un phénomène nommé Nekkaz”, El Watan 21 Février 2019. Accessed at: