An Activist’s Flight Reveals Widening Repression in Algeria

When Amira Bouraoui, an Algerian-French pro-democracy activist, boarded a plane to France from Tunisia last month, she thought her ordeal had finally come to an end.

She had already failed twice to flee Algeria, where her activism had put her in the government’s cross hairs. Her third attempt, by illegally entering neighboring Tunisia, resulted in her being arrested and threatened with deportation. Only a last-minute offer of consular protection from France saved her.

“I was ready to do anything to leave Algeria,” Ms. Bouraoui, 47, said in a recent interview in a Paris suburb where she now lives in exile, asking that the precise location not be disclosed. “Not being able to express myself freely was like a slow death to me.”

What she did not expect, however, was the Algerian government’s retaliation. A dozen days after Ms. Bouraoui’s escape, prosecutors charged her 71-year-old mother, her cousin, a journalist acquaintance, a taxi driver and a customs official for “criminal conspiracy” in helping her flee.

“They’re telling me, ‘We’ve got you through your mother,’” Ms. Bouraoui said.

Her case is part of what academics and human rights groups have described as an intensifying crackdown on civil society by an Algerian government sliding toward authoritarianism. In recent years, hundreds of activists have been sent to jail, dozens more have fled abroad and the last remnants of an independent news media have been stifled.

Four years after a popular uprising, known as the Hirak, ousted Algeria’s autocratic president of 20 years, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and seemed to herald a new dawn for the country, hopes for real democracy have been dashed. In a cruel twist of fate, some Hirak supporters now even feel nostalgic for the time when Mr. Bouteflika was in power.

“We were freer,” Ms. Bouraoui said. “I feel sad to say that.”

Ms. Bouraoui, a gynecologist, gained prominence in the 2010s for her vocal opposition to Mr. Bouteflika’s long and undemocratic rule.

When the Hirak uprising erupted in 2019, she quickly became a face of the movement. Every week, streams of protesters from all backgrounds peacefully took to the streets to demand an overhaul of Algeria’s corrupt, military-backed government.

Shaken by the rare demonstrations, the country’s establishment dismissed Mr. Bouteflika and endorsed a new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected on a promise to heed the protesters’ demands. He began with a few good-will gestures, releasing detained protesters.

“One of Tebboune’s first statements was, ‘I extend my hand to Hirak,’” Ms. Bouraoui said. “I believed him.”

But, she added, “it was only extended to beat us up.”

After the coronavirus pandemic brought the protests to a halt, Algerian security services stepped back in, arresting dozens of activists in a cat-and-mouse game. As of October, some 250 people “were being held in prison for their participation in peaceful protest, activism or expression,” according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Ms. Bouraoui, who faced multiple arrests and spent several days in custody, was sentenced in 2021 to two years in prison for “offending Islam” and insulting the president. She had not yet been jailed upon her escape because of a pending appeal.

Fearful of new protests, the Algerian authorities have specifically targeted individuals and groups with ties to the Hirak uprising to make sure that the movement “is suffocated once and for all,” said Dalia Ghanem, an Algeria expert at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

Two weeks ago, the Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse, a leading youth-oriented human rights organization, and the Mouvement Démocratique et Social, a leftist party founded 60 years ago, were banned by Algeria’s highest administrative court. Journalists and media organizations that extensively covered the uprising have also been imprisoned and shut down.

“They’re blocking any possibility of civil society organization, any hope of a return of Hirak,” said Saïd Salhi, the vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights.

The group was dissolved in June after a complaint filed by the Interior Ministry. But Mr. Salhi, who lives in exile in Belgium, said the group had learned about the judicial proceedings only in January, when related court documents began circulating on the internet.

Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, recently denounced these bans as “acts of intimidation, silencing and repression.”

The Algerian Ministry of Justice did not respond to several requests for comment. Last fall, Abderrachid Tabbi, the country’s justice minister, told the United Nations that recent prosecutions “had nothing to do with freedom of expression.”

Born out of a bloody war of independence from France six decades ago, Algeria was long ruled by a one-party system. Since the late 1980s, power has remained in the hands of a tight group of political and military leaders, a system that Ms. Ghanem calls “competitive authoritarianism,” which mixes in token elements of democracy, like multiparty elections.

In 2021, the government overhauled the penal code and broadened terrorism-related charges to include people challenging the government using vaguely defined “unconstitutional means,” which United Nations experts and human rights groups say have been used to prosecute peaceful activists.

“It’s with this reform that they crushed Hirak,” Mr. Salhi said. He added that accusations of terrorism played on deep-seated fears amid a population still traumatized by a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s that left up to 100,000 people dead.

The repression came under sharp criticism last fall at the United Nations, when Algeria’s human rights record was reviewed.

But it remains unclear whether the condemnation will durably affect the country’s international standing. One of the world’s biggest producers of natural gas, Algeria has benefited from the war in Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis, building new partnerships with the West.

One casualty, however, may be the country’s relationship with France, its longtime colonizer, with which a rapprochement has just begun after decades of animosity over their troubled past.

After Ms. Bouraoui fled under French consular protection, the Algerian Foreign Ministry accused France of facilitating the “illegal operation of exfiltration of an Algerian national” and recalled its ambassador to Paris over the affair. Upping the ante, Algeria’s official news agency published a statement castigating French secret services as seeking “the definitive break with Algeria.”

Ms. Bouraoui said she decided to flee via Tunisia after the editor of an independent radio station where she ran a weekly show was charged for publishing articles that threaten national security and was put in custody. “The noose was tightening,” she said.

She used her mother’s passport to cross the Tunisia-Algeria border incognito, in a taxi. She was arrested a few days later at an airport in Tunis while trying to board a flight to France and was to be tried last month for illegal entry into Tunisia. A Tunisian court sentenced her to three months in jail in absentia.

“Hopes for change were huge during Hirak in 2019,” Ms. Bouraoui said. “The disillusionment today is just as great.”

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