Prominent Algerian Hirak activist, Chems Eddine Laalami, was sentenced to two years in prison and imposed with a fine of 200,000 Algerian dinars on Sunday, July 11 by a court in north-eastern Algeria. Laalami was reportedly found guilty of charges such as “hate speech, contempt for institutions and distribution of false news” and “inciting an unarmed gathering”, according to prisoners’ rights group National Commission for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD). Human rights groups and activists have termed these charges as baseless and politically motivated to judicially harass the government’s opponents and critics, especially activists and supporters of the Hirak movement.
30-year-old Laalami, also known as Brahim, is a tailor by profession. He became well-known after taking part in protests in the town of Bordj Bou Arreridj against ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika seeking a fifth term in office in February 2019. He later went on to become one of the central and most visible figures of the pro-democracy, anti-establishment Hirak movement, as a result of which he was arrested and prosecuted several times by the Algerian authorities.
Laalami was most recently arrested by the Algerian Coast Guard in June end while he was trying to reach Spain. He was subsequently placed under an arrest warrant by the investigating judge of the court of Bordj Bou Arreridj on July 4 to face trial. During his trial, the prosecution reportedly asked for a prison sentence of three years, along with a fine of 500,000 dinars on each of the charges against him. He was also sentenced to three months in jail for his attempt to illegally cross over to Spain.
Reacting to the news of the activist’s sentencing, Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), in a statement said that “young people are slipping back into disillusionment and despair after a moment of hope sparked by Hirak. Many were fleeing the country and burning their identity papers on arrival at their destination to avoid being sent back, an act known as ‘harraga’ in Arabic.”
Following the overthrow of the Bouteflika regime during the 2019 Algerian revolution, successive governments in the country have continued the systematic and brutal persecution of opposition groups and critics. The Hirak movement has been the primary target of the government due to its demands for a complete overhaul of the political and administrative machinery and ending problems like widespread government corruption and social inequality. The Hirak protesters have demanded the expulsion of all politicians and government officials from the Bouteflika era who are still holding on important positions of power.
The current government headed by president Abdelmadjid Tebboune has come down heavily on the Hirak movement protesters, arresting thousands of them in recent months. It has introduced a ban on ‘unauthorized protests’, specifically targeting the weekly Hirak protests staged every Friday. According to the CNLD, there are currently at least 300 political prisoners in Algeria who are being held in prison solely for participating or supporting the Hirak movement. They include political activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, bloggers and leaders of opposition political parties.