In Algeria, there has been a marked rise in the number of civil society organisations and other associations being forced to close, coming four years after the birth of the popular Hirak movement calling for a democratic Algeria[mfn]MEI, ‘Algeria’s opposition after the Hirak: Limitations and divisions’, available on: https://www.mei.edu/publications/algerias-opposition-after-hirak-limitations-and-divisions [/mfn], and eventually leading to the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and a new era in Algeria[mfn]Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Algeria, UN doc. A/HRC/36/13, 11-29 September 2017, recommendation 129.114 (France)[/mfn]. In 2023, the rising numbers of organisations closing, coupled with an initiative to revise regulatory frameworks regarding how these organisations operate, serve as alarming indicators of the authorities’ determination to toughen their repression of the country’s civic space.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Algerian authorities to respect the provisions of Article 53 of the 2020 Algerian Constitution, which guarantee the right to establish associations, as well as Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 16 December 1966, which Algeria ratified in 1989 and which, following the overhaul of the draft law and the resulting guarantee for freedom of association, provides for the right of all persons ‘to associate freely with others’.
Algeria’s new draft law on associations: A step backwards
During its third and fourth UN Human Rights Council universal periodic reviews, Algeria agreed to repeal Law No. 12-06 of 2012 regarding associations, and to draft a new law. The reviews demonstrated that this law presents a serious restriction on the establishment of associations, the process of registering them, their financing and the discretionary power wielded by the administration in the process of dissolving an association.[mfn]UPR, 2017, Algeria. Available at this link: https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/upr/dz-index [/mfn]
Under the framework of Law 12-06, the procedures for the establishment of associations are characterised in Algerian law by their complex nature and long delays. The constitution of an association is required to proceed through several stages, during which the administration has broad powers to hinder the process, which inevitably contravenes international standards on freedom of association. In this context of the freedom to form and engage in associations, it was recommended that the Algerian legislator harmonise the law on associations with international standards. This would require the simplification of the procedures for setting up an association; reduction of the time required; uniformity regarding the time limits for the authorities to carry out their administrative enquiry; uniformity of the structure regarding the authorisation to set up the association; abandonment of the obligation to bring together founders from different local communities or wilayas as part of this process; clarification of the provisions relating to the setting up of a foreign association, and granting foreigners the right to establish local associations.[mfn]Recommendations from a study prepared by ARTICLE 19, ‘Freedom of association in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt’. 2020 (unpublished) [/mfn]
On 3 March 2022, The Algerian government announced the implementation of a new draft bill on associations in Algeria, However, the new draft bill is ambivalent, presenting four key problems:
1. Vague terminology that could be used to suppress dissent: Because of the use of catch-all terms, Article 8 of the draft bill widens restrictions set out in Article 2 of the current law 06-12 regarding associations’ activities. It provides that: the association shall carry out its activities with respect for principles and values enshrined in the constitution; national and territorial unity; the fundamentals of national identity, the symbols of the state and its institutions; national security and defence; public order; good morals; the safety of persons and property, the rights of others and their freedoms, and for people’s right to privacy.
2. Authorisation regime regarding associations’ constitutions: Chapter II of the draft law on associations, entitled ‘declaration and registration procedures’, takes up most of the provisions contained in Law No 12-06. Despite an improvement in the time it takes to set up an association, the declaratory regime is ambivalent and continues to hide the authorisation regime that existed in law 06-12. Thus, Article 16 of the draft law states that ‘once the declaration has been made, the association shall carry out its activities’, while Article 14 maintains that ‘the constitution of the association is subject to a constitutive declaration and the issue of a registration receipt’. This means the situation that has existed in the past continues, and an association in Algeria is only legally constituted after it has been given a receipt from the administration. However, several associations, although operating in compliance with the law, have never received their receipts.
3. Authorisation of foreign funding: The draft bill on associations has also increased control over the funding of associations. Articles 47 and 48 of the draft law impose a requirement for the relevant authority to authorise an association in order for it to be able to accept donations and legacies from foreign parties, associations or foreign non-governmental organisations. This is contrary to Human Rights Council Resolution No. 22/6, which calls on States to ensure that ‘no legislative provision should criminalise or discredit human rights activities on the basis of the origin of their source of funding’.
4. Authorisation for foreign Non Government Organisations (NGOs): Articles 75 and 85 replaced the notion of ‘foreign associations’ with ‘associations of friendship and exchange with foreigners’ and ‘international non-governmental organisations’. The first category is constituted and/or directed totally or partially by non-Algerian citizens based within the country and which are registered on the national territory register ; the NGOs are associations approved in a foreign country that aim to ‘open an office within the national territory and operate in accordance with the national legislation and regulations’. The draft establishes a requirement for the constitution of ‘friendship and exchange’ associations to have an obligation to uphold the ‘good’ diplomatic relations that the countries of origin of their members maintain with the Algerian government. The creation of these associations and NGOs requires the approval of the Minister of the Interior after a reasoned opinion from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. As for NGOs, Article 81 of the draft stipulates that their funding ‘may be subject to a ceiling by regulation if necessary’.
ARTICLE 19 reminds the Algerian authorities that imposing the existence of diplomatic links as well as capping the funding of NGOs and references to principles of non-intervention could easily restrict any human rights work and is nevertheless contrary to international standards protecting freedom of association.
The draft bill also restricts NGOs allowed to operate in Algeria via article 88, and through reference to the broad restrictions of its article 8. It emphasises that NGOs are prohibited from ‘attempting to sow distinction between the components of the nation or incite members of society against their political, economic, religious and/or cultural choices and their religious reference’. This is yet another example of imprecise and over-broad legal jargon, which leaves a wide discretionary power to the Algerian authorities and hinders the ability of NGOs to establish themselves in Algeria. As for the dissolution of associations and the freezing of their activities, a slight change is noted in the time limit for such freezing, which is reduced from six months (in law 06-12) to 60 days in the new draft bill. The grounds for dissolution and the discretionary power that used to exist in law 06-12 have been included in the draft law, as have restrictions that are contrary to international standards, such as the prohibition on concluding partnership agreements with foreign associations and international non-governmental organisations without the prior agreement of the relevant authority, the prohibition on membership of foreign associations without the prior agreement of the Minister of the Interior, and the ban on accepting donations or legacies from foreign parties that do not comply with the requirements of the law.
This broad power granted to administrative authorities may lead to abusive suspension procedures. The draft bill also provides for criminal sanctions in its Article 96, which states that ‘any person leading an unregistered or unapproved association or one that is not authorised to operate or continues to operate within an association that is the subject of a freeze, suspension or dissolution, shall be punished by imprisonment of between three (03) and six (06) months and a fine of between one hundred thousand (100,000) and three hundred thousand (300,000) Algerian dinars. This is contrary to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ Guidelines on freedom of association and assembly in Africa, which say: ‘States are not expected to impose criminal sanctions through laws governing non-profit associations. All criminal sanctions are specified in the penal code and not elsewhere. Civil society is not governed by criminal law provisions that differ from the general applicable provisions of the criminal code.’
ARTICLE 19 urges the Algerian authorities to review the draft law on associations and to bring it into line with the Algerian Constitution and international standards on freedom of association. It reminds them that the guarantee of civic space remains the cornerstone of the democratic edifice in a pluralist and participatory Algeria.
Freedom of association threatened by the dissolution of Algerian associations
There are several examples of the Algerian authorities applying direct pressure on associations.
SOS Bab El Oued is among them. SOS Bab El Oued is a well-known cultural association located in Algiers, and is especially important in Beb El Oued, a working-class neighbourhood, where it has provided cultural services to Algerian youth in distress since its establishment in the aftermath of the Bab El Oued floods in 2001, and where it has opened the doors of its headquarters for young Algerian musicians and artists. It is also active in social development in the area.
On 21 April 2021, police officers searched the headquarters of SOS Bab el Oued in Algiers in the presence of its president, Nacer Maghnine, who was taken away in handcuffs. The search resulted in the seizure of several banners and electronic equipment. According to a communiqué from the General Directorate of National Security (DGSN), the cultural association was classified as ‘criminal’ for having received funding ‘from a diplomatic representation of a large country in Algiers’, enabling it to acquire modern technological equipment and devices ‘used to produce provocative films and documents as well as publications and signs’ that authorities said incited unrest during the popular marches of the Hirak movement.
The police services, following a judicial authorisation from the Algiers public prosecutor’s office, arrived at ‘the source of foreign funding for this association’ after an investigation at a banking establishment. The police operation against the association also resulted in the detention of members of the association on 21 April during the Friday marches on 16 April in Algiers. All were released provisionally, except Nacer Meghnine, who was kept in police custody and then placed under a detention warrant. On 26 September 2021, Meghnine was sentenced to 8 months in prison for ‘undermining national unity and national interest’ according to the provisions of Article 97 of the penal code, among other charges related to the activities of the association, including ‘receiving money from a foreign body with the aim of committing acts that affect national unity and public order’, ‘possession and distribution of leaflets that undermine the national interest’, and ‘incitement to unarmed assembly’ according to Articles 75, 79, 100, 146 and 147 of the same code.
In a separate case, on 23 February 2023, the Algerian administrative court ruled in favour of the Ministry of the Interior and Territorial Communities, which had lodged a complaint and called for Rassemblement, Actions, Jeunesse (RAJ) to be dissolved.
The decision followed a long campaign of harassment against RAJ members. Its president, Abdelouhab Fersaoui, has already been sentenced to a year in prison.
RAJ is an Algerian youth association founded in 1992. According to its mission statement, its main goals are to raise awareness of social problems among young people and mobilise them to help solve these problems, as well as to promote cultural activities and human rights in Algeria. In 2020, RAJ received the Commitment Award, which honours initiatives for social change around the world.
The Algiers administrative court originally took its decision to dissolve RAJ on 13 October 2021.
To justify its decision, the Ministry of the Interior cited RAJ’s alleged links with ‘political parties’, ‘relations with foreign associations (Tunisian and French)’ and ‘its activities deemed to be in violation of its statutes’. In a statement, RAJ rejected these accusations ‘[based] essentially on the association’s public activities during the Hirak’. The association had described its actions as ‘compatible’ with ‘its mandate as an association working to promote the involvement of young people in the management of the city’.
It should be noted that the Ministry of the Interior has never before sent any warning or formal notice to RAJ regarding its activities and its activism with the popular movement Hirak. Moreover, this decision is a further illustration of the instrumentalisation of Law 12/06 against associations. This law gives the Algerian authorities discretionary power to assess the activities of associations and to manoeuvre widely to request their dissolution.
The harassment of the association prior to the administrative court ruling included the arrest of several members of RAJ starting in 2019, including its founder, Hakim Addad, and Massinissa Aissous, Djalal Mokrani, Ahmed Bouider, Kamel Ouldouali, as well as the 1-year sentence handed down to the current president, Abdelouhab Fersaoui
Caritas Algeria is another charitable association that has been targeted. Affiliated to the Catholic Church in Algeria, it has launched initiatives for the benefit of physically and mentally disabled people, as well as disadvantaged women and children.. In a press release from the Archdiocese of Algiers signed by Paul Desfarges, Archbishop Emeritus of Algiers and President of the Diocesan Association of Algeria, of which Caritas is a member, it announced that it would cease all its activities as of 1 October 2022 in response to the request made by the Algerian authorities. Caritas claims that the Algerian authorities’ order to cease activities was communicated to them without providing the bishops of the Catholic Church in Algeria with official and detailed reasons for this measure. The authorities accuse the NGO of not complying with national law and of operating outside the legal framework for Algerian associations. The Vatican press agency strongly deplores this arbitrary closure of a Christian charity in Algeria.
The Algerian administrative court has also ruled to dissolve the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights following a complaint by the Ministry of the Interior and local authorities. According to the statement published by the League on its Facebook page, it was not informed of the trial, nor of the decision rendered by the administrative court, thus preventing it from defending itself and appealing.
The Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) is a national association that operates in all 48 wilayas in Algeria, and remains among the most influential organisations in the country. It played a fundamental role in supporting human rights during the Algerian Civil War, known as the ‘black decade’, and following the national reconciliation and the popularisation of respect for human rights in Algeria as part of the peace process. It was established in 1985 by a group of activists headed by the late Maître Ali Yahia Abdenour, who was its first president. It was officially recognised by the authorities on 26 July 1989, after the political opening up of the country following the events of 5 October 1988.
On 29 June 2022, the administrative court of Algiers ruled, in secret, on a complaint lodged by the Ministry of the Interior against the LADDH on 4 May 2022. It issued a sentence that was only made public through non-regulatory channels in September 2022, without communicating it to the league within the jurisdictional deadlines, thus preventing it from defending itself and appealing. The league only became aware of the charges against it on 20 January 2023, according to a statement published on its Facebook page.
The administrative court validated the complaints raised by the Ministry of the Interior, which can be found in the judgement circulated on social networks, and in which the league is accused of ‘publishing inciting declarations on social networks accusing the authority of repressing demonstrations and supporting what it calls “detainees of opinion”,’ in addition to the ‘incitement of protest movements, defence of minorities and attempts to internationalise them with various international organisations and bodies’, and ‘the non-conformity of the league’s actions with the aims of its creation as stated in its internal regulations’. In a statement published by LADH’s vice-president, Said Salhi, on his Facebook page, he confirms that ‘the league has been dissolved for having accomplished the ordinary work of a human rights league as known through all the leagues in the world: Documenting, denouncing human rights violations, pleading for the respect of the commitments of the states in terms of rights and freedoms …This is what is reproached to the league, work that activists have accomplished over the decades.’
Calls for freedom of association to be upheld
ARTICLE 19 condemns the attack on associative pluralism in Algeria, following the judicial decision to dissolve definitively the Algerian League for Human Rights in Algeria (LADDH), RAJ and other associations. It calls on the Algerian authorities to adopt a legal framework allowing for a free, pluralist and independent associative landscape in harmony with international standards applying to freedom of association.
ARTICLE 19 considers that the dissolution of these Algerian associations, which are active in the civic arena and remain robust support network for citizen participation in Algeria, as contrary to Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Covenant states that ‘the exercise of this right shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’. The dissolution of these associations is also contrary to the provisions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states that the dissolution of an association should only happen in response to a serious crime, as a last resort and after exhausting all mechanisms of appeal. This is a process that the Algerian courts have presumably ruled out.
ARTICLE 19 urges the Algerian judiciary to rectify the dissolution of these associations and to protect freedom of assembly as dictated by the rule of law in terms of the State’s submission to its constitutional laws and the international treaties it has ratified. It also calls on the Algerian authorities to adopt a comprehensive legal framework allowing for the creation of a pluralistic and independent associative environment in line with international standards on freedom of association, and to amend the chapters of the draft law on associations that restrict freedom of association through disproportionate controls and lengthy and complex procedures related to the establishment, funding and litigation of NGO associations in Algeria.