Eighteen years ago in Algeria, high school student Massinissa Guermah was arrested and shot by a gendarmerie brigade in the northern Kabylie region of the country. His death on April 20, 2001, spurred an uprising known as the “Black Spring,” which lasted two years, leaving 128 people dead and as many as 5,000 wounded.
Eighteen years later, nearly to the day, 23-year-old protester Ramzy Yettou succumbed to a head injury suffered during a demonstration. The young man had spent a week in a coma, reportedly after being struck in the head by police during a demonstration in Algiers on April 12.
Family members including his brother, as well as several witnesses, dismissed the authorities’ claim he fell from a truck and said they would not be silenced.
Over the weekend, Algerian protesters marked the anniversary of the Black Spring and paid homage to its “martyrs” throughout the country, chanting one of its main slogans: “Pouvoir, assassin” (meaning: the authorities are the killers).
“All the people who have taken part [in] the destruction of our country and have helped this system to remain in place must be held accountable,” said political cartoonist Ghilas Ainouche.
In Ainouche’s hometown of Bejaia last Friday, he condemned the entrenched political system that has prevailed since the Black Spring, accusing it of being responsible for the “failure of the country.”
“We should move forward, but let’s not forget that they are responsible for the deaths of a great number of harragas (people illegally emigrating on boats to Europe), of 128 people during the Black Spring, and of 200,000 during the Black decade,” he said.
Ainouche says that living through the Black Spring nurtured his political awareness. Its cost, he adds, shows why the peacefulness of the protest movement born in February must be preserved.
Over the last two months, millions of Algerians have gathered each Friday in the country’s major cities. At first, they called for the departure of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s longest-serving president, who eventually resigned on April 2. The protesters demanded that all the political leaders and oligarchs who served the system “get out.”
The protest movement, known as the Hirak, has been peaceful and well-organized, with numerous local committees overseeing the crowds to avoid any resort to violence. However, its human rights cost and rising repression have been overlooked.
More than 400 people have officially been arrested, according to global human rights watchdog Amnesty International, since the start of the Hirak. While many have been released quickly, others have been accused of destruction of public property, theft, assault, and participation in an unarmed gathering. The information surrounding these arrests has been minimal – so seems to be the public interest.
Meanwhile, there has been a surge of police violence.
On April 9, a student demonstration was met with water canons and several students were arrested. The following Friday, April 12, security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a tunnel in Algiers where the protest procession passes through, causing a scramble. There, clashes also took place, leaving dozens of people wounded.
“[We] have documented the use of electric impulsion weapons, sound cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to control the crowd since the beginning of the movement,” Amnesty’s Algeria researcher Yasmina Kacha told Asia Times.
Former diplomat and George Washington University professor William Lawrence also points to “increasing levels of violence against protesters and a number of troubling incidents, such as the humiliating treatment of female protesters in detention.”
Thus far, the army has shown a level of solidarity with the protesters, he said. “But things will degrade into greater violence as that alliance gets frayed,” he added. “If the crowds turn more violently on the security services or vice versa, we will see more human rights violations.”
Authorities – in an attempt to weaken the movement – have been partially blocking the roads to Algiers on Thursday evenings to prevent people from entering the capital before the national day of protest.
Until now, only Hadj Guermoul, a 37-year-old member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, has been acknowledged as being jailed for expressing his opinion. His offense was to hold a sign in opposition to Bouteflika’s fifth mandate in a photo posted on Facebook. The activist, who also serves in the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed, was sentenced to a six-month jail term in February and is considered to be the first detainee of the Hirak movement.
Amnesty’s Kacha points out that 20 people detained on March 15 and released two days later are scheduled to appear in court on May 23 for their participation in “unarmed gatherings,” raising the prospect that others who have been detained and released could face jail time.
In an attempt to maintain access to public space, local activists have decided that weekly marches (although the biggest the country has seen in decades) are not enough.
A group of activists of the Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ) and the Democratic and Social Movement (Mouvement Démocratique et Social, MDS), joined by ordinary citizens, met every day last week at 5 pm on the steps of the Grande Poste office in Algiers – where protests have been banned by decree since 2001.
There, they simply sat and openly spoke about the protest movement’s next moves, drawing passers-by into the conversation. This attempt to democratize public debate in the city led, in turn, to more arrests.
On April 13, 10 RAJ and MDS activists were forced into a police vehicle and taken to the Baraki police station 20 kilometers away, only to be released after eight hours with no charges.
But during that time, the female activists say they were stripped and had their intimate parts searched by a policewoman. The officer claimed it was standard procedure to check for any harmful object, but several lawyers have rejected this claim, calling the practice illegal.
The story of the violation raised a wave of indignation in the country and the female activists have said they will press charges.
The repression also did not stop activists from meeting the following day.
Ahcene Kadi, a 22-year-old technician at the RAJ web radio, has been arrested twice. The first time, he says he was taken by his arms by two policemen and violently pushed on his back by another one as he was approaching the sit-in. He was kept waiting at the police station until 1 am,”a psychological torture,” he said, although he was not interrogated. The next day, he was taken again by force and released two hours later.
“[Algeria’s leaders] are playing the card of fear because they can’t give up power. They are trying to win time. Soon there will be the month of Ramadan, the holidays. They think that the movement will weaken,” said Ainouche.
Many activists fear a violent response from protesters if the police continue using repressive tactics. This, they say, could give the authorities the opportunity to legitimize any resort to violence and even enable them to declare a state of emergency.
“We won’t give up,” said Kadi. The movement has already achieved a major goal, he stressed: “It has broken down the wall of fear.”