Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pardoned more than 6,000 prisoners last Thursday, extending a process of clemency that started earlier this year and interpreted as a goodwill gesture by the authorities to help establish dialogue with the country’s protest movement.
Before he was elected in December, Tebboune said he had no plans to interfere with the judicial process to release prisoners, including those arrested from the pro-democracy protest movement, the hirak.
But earlier this year Tebboune released 3,471 prisoners, which when added to those released last week brings the total number up to 10,000, an unprecedented figure in Algeria.
The hirak movement will see its first anniversary on 22 February, and there has been no sign that it will end its weekly Tuesday and Friday protests any time soon. Tebboune was elected in a controversial election late last year that was held despite its rejection by the protest movement, which has been demanding radical change in the ruling system.
Tebboune, 74, a former prime minister, received 58.15 per cent of the vote in an election marked by a voter turnout of 40 per cent, lower than in previous elections. His legitimacy has been questioned, as rights groups contested the vote’s official numbers, saying the polling stations were empty on the day of the elections and the real turnout was a fraction of that figure.
The current protests in Algeria were triggered early last year by then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plans to run for a fifth term in office despite having suffered a stroke that had prevented him from appearing in public since 2013.
He was eventually pressured by Military Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh to step down last April, a development that did not sway the protesters, who continued to demand the removal of the country’s entire ruling class.
Until his sudden death on 23 December, days after Tebboune’s election, Saleh had emerged as Algeria’s de facto leader, filling a power vacuum and giving the already powerful military establishment in Algeria more political latitude than has been seen in decades.
Saleh criticised the largely leaderless hirak, which soon became the target of security raids with dozens arrested or facing trial. These raids have continued since Saleh’s death and Tebboune’s election.
Many protesters remain in detention facing charges based on their participation in peaceful protests or making criticisms of the authorities after 70 activists were provisionally released in January.
“Instead of freeing everyone detained for peaceful protesting, the authorities have continued arresting and detaining people for their peaceful activism,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at the US rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Offers of dialogue lose credibility when you are locking people up simply for going onto the streets to disagree with you.”
At least one prominent Algerian journalist has been arrested and threatened with prosecution, HRW said. The authorities charged him with “insulting the president of the republic” and “harming state security” over Facebook posts mocking Tebboune. Several prominent leaders of the hirak also remain in detention.
During Saleh’s de facto rule, the Algerian authorities initiated an anti-corruption campaign against symbols of Bouteflika’s former regime, including his brother Said, 62, and former spy chief Mohamed Lamine Mediene, 60, among others.
On Monday, an Algerian military court upheld 15-year prison sentences handed down against both men who have been convicted of conspiracy against the state.
Said, arrested last May along with Mediene and left-wing politician Louisa Hanoun, had long been seen as the power behind his brother’s presidency, particularly after he suffered a stroke in 2013.
The defendants were accused of having met in March 2019 in an attempt to “derail” plans by Saleh to force Bouteflika’s departure. Said Bouteflika had allegedly wanted the intelligence chiefs to dismiss Saleh instead.
Hanoun’s original sentence of 15 years was reduced to three and was ordered by the court to be released.
In January, Tebboune formed an “expert committee” to draft constitutional reforms intended to address the hirak’s pro-democracy demands that will eventually be put to a popular vote.
However, the past year of intense and regular protests with few outcomes might eventually compel the leaderless movement to organise and work on a formal political platform for the first time.
On his way to attend a conference organised by hirak activists to mark its first anniversary, Algerian journalist Al-Kadi Ihsane tweeted that “the hirak is not only Friday and Tuesday marches; it is also great organisational efforts to give a political context to the change that the people demand.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.