Can Algerian human rights defenders be safe in Tunisia?


Algeria president Abdelmadjid Tebboune (left) and Tunisian president Kais Saeid (right) shaking hands at President Saied's first state visit to Algeria. February 2020. Screenshot from a video by CGTN Africa documenting the visit. Fair use.

The time in the 90s when Algeria was proudly renowned for having “the freest press in the Arab world” seems far away now. Crackdowns on freedom of expression and financial hardships in the last twenty years have forced many broadsheets, such as Le Matin, La Tribune and the weekly La Nation, to shut down. The climate, in fact, no longer supports freedom. Despite toppling Abdelaziz Bouteflika's two-decade-long-reign in 2019, the Algerian path to democracy was soon aborted by current president Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

In June 2021, Tebboune made changes to the penal code in Algeria, further broadening the definition of “terrorism” in article 87.  Th expansion includes “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.”

Authorities have since used this article to prosecute an increasing number of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. According to human rights organizations, over 280 activists and dozens of journalists are languishing in detention, mostly for charges of defamation of politicians or because of publications on social networks. Additionally, many others have gone into exile.

The Algerian regime aims to demonstrate, by example, that it can strike hard. The latest instance was the conviction of journalist Ihsane El Kadi in June 2023. As a leader of one of the last independent press groups in Algeria — Interface Médias, which includes Radio M and the news website Maghreb Émergent — he was convicted on charges of “receiving funds for political propaganda” and “harming the national security of the state” with sentenced to seven years in prison following an appeal.

Interface Médias was fined and shut down, and its assets were seized.

The criminalization of freedom of expression sends a frightening signal to anyone daring to report a different view from the official narrative. According to Boukhlef, an Algerian journalist at Liberté, as mentioned in The New Arab:

In recent years we have been forced into self-censorship. Journalists have been imprisoned for reporting. The pressures on media managers pushed us to be careful about what we write.

Algeria is currently ranked at the bottom, 136th out of 180, in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

Repression of dissenting voices at home and abroad

Following a classic authoritarian playbook, Algerian authorities are not only cracking down on dissident voices at home but also targeting them abroad, including in next door Tunisia. Algeria has the leverage to pressure Tunisia, finding a friendly echo with Tunisian president Kais Saied, who is also enforcing a clampdown on dissidents.

There are dangerous precedents of opponents fleeing repression and seeking safety in Tunisia, only to be hunted down by the Algerian authorities. One such case involves Algerian activist and Christian convert Slimane Bouhafs, who spent almost two years in an Algerian prison before being released in March 2018.

Following his release, Bouhafs entered Tunisia legally where he was granted political refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2020, theoretically providing him protection, as international law prohibits returning anyone to a country where they may face persecution or human rights violations.

In August 2021, unidentified men abducted Bouhafs from his home in Tunis and forcibly returned him to Algeria, where he was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment. Despite calls from human rights organizations, no investigation has been launched into this grave violation of the principle of non-refoulement and international refugee law.

Tunisia has not commented on the issue.

Similarly, human rights defender Zakaria Hannache, known for documenting state repression under the Hirak has found refuge in Tunisia since November 2022. He is escaping false charges of “praising terrorism” and “undermining national unity,” for which he faces up to 35 years in prison. He was also granted political refugee status by the UNHCR.

But Zakaria still feels unsafe. He is in fact hiding in Tunisia and has changed his address at least 13 times. In an interview with Le Monde, he expressed his fear of “being kidnapped by the Algerian authorities.” He is now petitioning France for protection.

Tunisian dependence on its ‘big sister’ Algeria

Tunisia's relationship with Algeria, its “big sister,” has never been better. It is to Algeria that President Kais Saied made his first state visit shortly after he was elected in 2019. Tebboune was the first Arab president to call Saied after his power grab on July 25, 2021, which involved suspending the parliament, dissolving the government, and taking control of the judiciary.

Since then, the country has been grappling with just about everything from a sinking economy and rampant corruption to social tensions. It is on the verge of bankruptcy and struggling to provide basic commodities. President Saied has resisted concessions to secure a rescue package. He has been hostile to international lenders and the IMF, which demands reforms and political liberalization. Refusing the “diktats that come from abroad and cause only more impoverishment,” he suggested “The alternative is that we must rely on ourselves.” He turned to Algeria for backup.

Additionally, Tunisia relies on Algeria for its national security and most of its electricity. Algeria’s list of services to its neighbors is indeed long and is always ready to jump in and rescue. According to political analyst Jamil Sayah in an article on TV5 Monde:

Le pouvoir algérien s'est rendu indispensable au pouvoir tunisien. Il assure sa survie. La hausse des prix du gaz et du pétrole a donné plus de marges financières à Alger et finalement les quelques 700 millions de dollars sous forme de prêts ou de dons représentent peu de chose pour Alger. Mais cet argent permet pour l'instant au pouvoir de Kais Saied de se maintenir à flot

Algerian power has made itself indispensable to Tunisian power. It assures [Tunisian] survival. The increase in gas and oil prices gave more financial margins to Algiers, and, in the end, the nearly 700 million dollars in the form of loans or donations is little for Algiers. But this money allows for the moment Kais Saied to stay afloat.

The complicity of Tunisia

This heavy dependence on its Algerian neighbor puts Tunisia in a fragile position. Algiers expects Tunis to fulfil its demands in return for support. However, it is not always straightforward. In February 2023, when prominent Hirak activist Amira Bouraoui entered Tunisia illegally to escape a two-year sentence for “offending Islam and insulting the president,” Tunisia allowed her to flee to France, despite Algerian pressures for her extradition. The decision angered the Algerian government and sparked a diplomatic row.

In retaliation, Algerian customs immediately held 200 Tunisian cars and confiscated goods at the border. The next day, Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi was dismissed without explanation, leading many to suspect that he was sacrificed to appease Algerian anger.

For now, thanks to their significant oil supply, the Algerian authorities can maintain the political status-quo at home and in neighboring Tunisia.

However, the Amira Bouraoui episode demonstrated that there is still room to push back. Despite its democratic backsliding, Tunisia can still rely on its strong civil society and independent media to report violations and pressure for the protection of Human rights defenders at home and for anyone seeking safety.


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