Saiid Bouteflika, the younger brother and adviser of Algeria’s former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and four others were acquitted on Saturday of conspiracy charges for which they were serving long prison sentences by a military court in Algeria.
Saiid, former intelligence officers Athmane Tartag and Mohamed Lamine Mediene, known as Toufik, and head of the Algerian Workers Party Louisa Hanoun, were convicted in September 2019 of conspiring against the army and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Former Algerian defence minister Khaled Nezzar also received a 20-year sentence in absentia.
The dismissal of the earlier sentences is a dramatic shift from the tough sentences handed down against leading symbols of the former Bouteflika regime in the aftermath of Algeria’s uprising less than two years ago.
In September 2019, a military tribunal in Blida southwest of the capital Algiers found the individuals guilty of conspiring to “undermine the state” and plotting regime change.
Saiid, 63, had expanded his leverage inside the shrinking Algerian ruling circle after his older brother suffered a stroke in 2013 that impaired his speech and movement.
When Algeria’s pro-democracy movement began protesting in February 2019 against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term, Algerian military leader Ahmad Gaid Saleh eventually issued an ultimatum for the president to step down to contain public anger.
Bouteflika yielded on 2 April, but as the protests demanding radical regime change persisted, the authorities moved to arrest Saiid and the former spy chiefs and Hanoun a month later.
According to press leaks, the four were incarcerated after a secret meeting in which Saiid, unhappy with the military’s actions during the protests, allegedly discussed imposing a state of emergency and dismissing Gaid Saleh.
They were accused of meeting on 30 March to deliberate the formation of a new transitional body led by ex-president Liamine Zeroual to lead the post-Bouteflika period. Zeroual declined to be involved.
Gaid Saleh reportedly forced Bouteflika to step down after he learned of the meeting, thus becoming Algeria’s de facto leader during the power vacuum that followed.
Nezzar, a former defence minister notorious for his ruthlessness during Algeria’s Civil War in the 1990s, also attended the meeting but fled to Spain before he could be arrested.
Their convictions ahead of controversial presidential elections pushed for by Gaid Saleh were seen as an effort to appease the then-massive protest movement. A second trial months later before an appeals court upheld the prison sentences for the men but reduced Hanoun’s to a three-year suspended sentence.
She was released in February 2020 after nine months in jail.
In November 2020, the Algerian Supreme Court accepted an appeal by the defendants’ defence teams and ordered a retrial leading to their acquittal on Saturday.
A statement by the Algerian Ministry of Defence said that Toufik had been released, while Tartag would be kept in a military prison in Blida “facing prosecution by military justice.”
Saiid Bouteflika was transformed to a civilian prison on Monday pending corruption-related charges.
There was no mention during the three trials of the widescale abuses committed by the Algerian secret services under Toufik and Tartag’s watch during Algeria’s decade-long civil war in the 1990s.
Instead, as Toufik, 81, walked home, the state-run media focused on his apparent frailty.
The acquittals are unsurprising, but still remarkable, in the light of recent developments, said Algeria expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) Isabelle Werenfels.
“Over the past few months, we have seen a pattern of actors close to networks of the old system being cleared of allegations and released from prison, or having their sentences reduced,” she said, referring to business tycoon, Bouteflika ally, and former head of Algeria’s main employers organisation Ali Haddad, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges in June.
Last month, an Algerian court reduced his sentence to 12 years in prison and acquitted his four brothers.
Haddad’s arrest was part of Gaid Saleh’s anti-corruption drive, which extended to several former officials and billionaires in Bouteflika’s clique. In the same vein, former premiers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, who were serving 12 years for graft, also recently had their sentences reduced to eight years in prison.
“High-profile business tycoons may not be released immediately,” Werenfels told Al-Ahram Weekly. “But I would not be surprised if many of those arrested in the period of Gaid Salah’s strong leadership will receive reduced sentences and get free sooner than many Algerian citizens expected or hoped for.”
Gaid Saleh died in December, days after Abdelmajid Tebboune, a former premier under Bouteflika, was elected president in an election marred by protests and calls for a boycott.
The election was designed to end the unprecedented months-long pro-democracy movement the hirak. The authorities began a campaign of arrests targeting figures associated with the protests in the summer.
The acquittal of Saiid Bouteflika and the former spy chiefs came a day after Tebboune signed into law a new constitution for Algeria that was passed by a referendum seeing a record low voter turnout in November.
The amended constitution, touted by Tebboune as part of reform efforts to satisfy the hirak’s demands, is a tweaked version of the country’s 2016 constitution and has been rejected by the protest movement.
The continued crackdown on dissent and the reduced sentences on Bouteflika’s allies are sending a contrary message to Algerians, signalling the authorities’ new confidence in openly retaining figures from the former regime.
It also discloses other sides of Gaid Saleh’s motives during the 2019 “anti-corruption drive,” which was not limited to appeasing protesters, but was also meant to “get rid of competing networks,” according to Werenfels.
Nezzar’s reported return to Algiers early in December fuelled speculation of a settlement within the ruling oligarchy.
On Monday, 25-year-old hirak supporter Walid Kechida was sentenced to three years in prison for social media posts. Rights groups say that over 90 people including activists, social media users and journalists are currently in custody in Algeria in connection with the hirak movement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.