Thousands of lawyers in Algeria held protests, including national boycotts of hearings and sit-ins in front of courts, to denounce the arrest and illegal detention of lawyer and human rights activist Abderaouf Arslane. Arslane was detained on May 25. He has been charged with being a terrorist and belonging to the banned Islamist Rachad movement. He is being tried at a court in Tebessa, 600 kilometres from the capital, Algiers. His colleagues have categorically denied these charges as “baseless” and said that he is being persecuted for his political activity and for defending Hirak activists and leaders in their trials.
The demonstrations and other protest actions on Monday, June 7, were called by the National Union of Bar Associations (UNOA), which has 22,000 members. Lawyers held up signs with slogans such as “We are all Abderraouf Arslane”, “Freedom for Arslane”, “Lawyers are angry”, “No to silencing lawyers”, “Breach of the presumption of innocence ” and “There is no justice without defense.” Lawyers protesting in front of the court in Algiers were joined by prominent members of the Hirak protests, such as Mostefa Bouchachi, and Abdelghani Badi.
Similar sit-in protests and marches have been held across the country. The bar at Tebessa had decided to boycott all judicial activities from June 2, a day after the court upheld the arrest warrant issued against Arslane. Lawyers’ unions and bar associations have also called upon their colleagues who are participating in the upcoming June 12 legislative elections to withdraw their candidatures in protest.
In a statement to the media, Ahmed Sai, the head of the UNOA, said the allegations against Abderraouf Arslane are “baseless” and that he regrets that the prosecutor ““violated the principle of presumption of innocence and investigative secrecy.” He was referring to a press conference in which the public prosecutor said the authorities had found documents in Arslane’s office establishing his close links with the Rachad movement. Sai said that the public prosecutor only talked in terms of “probabilities” and didn’t provide any credible, empirical evidence for the allegations.The public prosecutor has also accused Arsalane of being in “contact with foreign parties.”
Arsalane’s supporters and colleagues insist that he is being hounded by the authorities and detained due to his political activity, including meetings he had hosted to plan weekly Hirak protests. They claim that Arslane is being targeted so as to intimidate and scare away other lawyers in the country and prevent them from taking up the cases of Hirak activists and leaders.
The Algerian government has for the better part of two years conducted a large-scale campaign of crackdowns and persecution against the Hirak protests, with more than 133 political prisoners currently languishing in the country’s jails according to the Algerian Detainees website. Last month, during renewed demonstrations, authorities detained close to 2,000 protesters on two consecutive Fridays.
The targeting of Hirak activists and supporters has increased ahead of the elections on June 12. The Hirak movement has termed the elections as a continuation of the status quo involving political, military and business figures from the previous regime. The protesters have demanded radical and comprehensive political and economic reforms.