The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and the Collective of the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (CFDA) express their continued concern about the state of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in the Northern sub-region of our continent. Today, we would specifically like to draw your attention to the deeply worrying situation of these defenders in Algeria and Egypt.
In Algeria, unionists and HRDs continue to suffer police and judicial harassment, especially in the form of arrest, interrogation, and prosecution. In November 2011, the police briefly arrested Nasima Qutal, a member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) and the National Front for Change, after she announced a hunger strike and sit-in May 1st Square, protesting human rights violations in Algeria. Furthermore, in January 2012, two members of the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed (NCDRU) were convicted of the participating in unauthorized demonstrations and sentenced to one year in prison, but the sentence was revoked on appeal. Only this week, another member of the same group was arrested during a protest in Algiers and remains in detention, awaiting trial on similar charges.
Organisations struggling to shed light on enforced disappearances from Algeria’s civil war are regularly intimidated by the authorities, including the SOS-Disparu(e)s and the Collective of the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (CFDA), to force them to drop their truth-seeking activities in exchange for indemnity and the issuance of death certificates for their relatives, without any further investigation of those responsible.
Access to Algeria is limited for foreign human rights activists as well. The Executive Director of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) has been denied visas several times in the past, as was Sihem Bensedrine, a Tunisian Human Rights Defender, who was denied entry in 2009 and therefore denied entry again early this year, but managed to enter the country after hours of negociations.
If the situation of HRDs in Algeria was already worrisome, the new law on associations, law No 12-06 of January 2012, only increases governmental restrictions on human rights NGOs. Many of its regulations violate Article 22 of the ICCPR and other international conventions ratified by Algeria.
Official registration of associations advocating human rights, gender equality, or truth and justice for crimes committed during the 1990s civil war can continue to be denied under the new law, and informal organisations prohibited. The vague terms of this law allow authorities to deny registration to associations whose aims are considered "contrary to national norms and values, public order, good morals, or current legal measures and regulations." The law also requires a high number of founding members to establish an association, an unnecessary barrier to entry. Article 46 threatens imprisonment and high fines for anyone who acts on behalf of an unrecognized association.
The new law also tightens governmental control over funding. Only a short list of national funding sources is authorized, while funding from foreign NGOs requires prior authorization (Art.30) and is forbidden to Algerian associations without official "established relationships of cooperation" with the Ministry of Interior. These measures threaten associations that rely on foreign funding – particularly human rights organizations.
Furthermore, an association can be suspended or dissolved "in the case of interference in internal affairs of the country or attack on national sovereignty" or if it "receives funds from a foreign NGO without authorization" or exercises "activities other than those established in its statute." Importantly, suspension can now be ordered by an administrative decision and dissolution by an administrative court. These measures prevent associations from identifying and criticizing human rights violations.
We would also like to draw the Commission’s attention to the ongoing attacks faced by human rights defenders in Egypt at this time. Independent civil society in Egypt is currently facing the worst crackdown since its emergence in 1985. Since the Commission met in November, 17 NGO offices were raided by security forces and members of the prosecution. National and international workers in foreign human rights and democracy groups were referred to court on criminal charges in what has been known as the "foreign funding case." The decision to lift the travel ban on international staff of foreign organizations does not halt the prosecution of these NGOs and their staff members. In fact, almost all national and international independent human rights organizations in Egypt are facing a severe government-led smear campaign aimed at defaming these groups before the Egyptian public, labeling them as foreign agents aspiring to disturb public stability and divide Egypt, and continue to face the threat of judicial investigations.
The strategies used by the Egyptian authorities in this case are characterized by unpredictability, manipulation of facts, and complete disregard of the law. On 21 December the Minister of Justice, without any legal grounds, held human rights organizations responsible for deadly attacks against protesters on different occasions. Additionally, the investigative judges appointed to the "foreign funding" case revealed details of the investigation allegedly linking the NGOs under investigation to a foreign conspiracy to divide Egypt. Such defaming statements aim to shift the blame for the violations committed by the ruling authorities, as well as to distract the public from these violations. Moreover, authorities in Egypt are basing their investigations on the draconian legislation passed by the Mubarak government to curtail the work of civil society.
Following the path of Algeria, the Egyptian Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs has proposed yet another restrictive draft law as the newly elected Parliament debates proposed legislation to govern civil society. This draft law is the most restrictive proposal so far – more so even than the previous draft presented by the government during the transition period – and aiming to impose even more restrictions on civil society and human rights organizations than the draconian law still in effect from the Mubarak era. This law would nationalize civil society, effectively turning it into an institution of the government, and NGO staff into civil servants. Such a move would entail harsher penalties and would completely eradicate the independence of civil society, particularly human rights organizations. Furthermore, the new law would impose several new arbitrary restrictions aiming to terrorize human rights defenders.
At this critical time in the history of Northern Africa, CIHRS and CFDA call on the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights to remind Algeria and Egypt of their obligations under international law to ensure respect for the right of HRDs to freedoms of association, assembly, and expression. Specifically, we urge the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa to devote further attention to the role of Human Rights Defenders in Algeria and Egypt and to continue to address the ongoing – and in some cases deteriorating – attacks against them.