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Algerians linked to protests 'forgotten' in pre-trial detention

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Algiers (AFP)

Dozens of Algerians linked to the country's anti-government protest movement remain "forgotten" in pre-trial detention during the coronavirus crisis, with little or no legal support.

Zinedine Hanane, 32, was arrested on March 1, 2019, in Algiers while returning from a demonstration, after two people from his neighbourhood allegedly got into a car with him.

One of them, a TV repair man, said he found a plasma television on the street after an appliance shop had been looted and took it for spare parts. All three men were arrested and accused of vandalism.

The protest movement "and the justice system have forgotten them," Hanane's mother Zakia said. "And with the coronavirus, they are paying a high price for this -- it's a double whammy even before judgement."

Detainees like Hanane often aren't considered part of the political opposition, and many lawyers who provide support to the anti-government protest movement -- known as "Hirak" -- will not represent them.

Some are alleged to have been involved in altercations, thefts and looting on the margins of the protests that broke out in February 2019 against the rule of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who resigned last year.

Some of those now detained came from outside the capital Algiers, the epicentre of the movement, and their families frequently struggle to find the money for lawyers.

Some have remained in jail while watching Hirak protesters be freed or sentenced to terms no longer than time already served.

Zakia and other mothers of detainees have formed a support group to share their hardships and help each other in their fight for their children's freedom.

Although the authorities say there have been no cases of the novel coronavirus within the country's penitentiaries, relatives' anguish has increased with the pandemic and prison visits have been cancelled.

- 'Powerful weapon' -

"Pre-trial detention is a powerful weapon in the hands of those who criminalise political, union and community activity -- and now, members of the Hirak," said Kaddour Chouicha, a human rights activist and former protest movement detainee from the northwestern city of Oran.

The justice ministry was unavailable for comment on the exact number of people in pre-trial detention. Algerian authorities have consistently avoided commenting on the matter.

Civil society NGOs are split on whether many of those detained in connection with the demonstrations are prisoners of conscience or not -- but agree they should not be in preventive detention.

Hakim Addad, a former prisoner and activist with civic group Youth Action Rally (RAJ), a key part of the protest movement, said most Hirak lawyers have treated this group of prisoners as common-law detainees.

That is despite the fact they have been jailed over incidents linked to the demonstrations.

Some Hirak attorneys have refused to defend them, citing "professional secrecy" to conceal the reasons for the prisoners' detention, said Lydia Lounaouci, a lawyer from the northeastern city of Bejaia.

Yazid Hadou, a protester from the northwestern city of Tlemcen, was arrested in October. Police accused him of fighting with a municipal officer ahead of the presidential election in December.

The family has engaged a lawyer, and his brother Hami is pushing for his release.

Since Yazid's arrest, their mother has died.

"She was sick and she didn't react well to news of his imprisonment," explained Hami.

"I don't dare tell" Yazid, he said, adding that his brother has a wife and young child.

- 'Unacceptable' -

Preventive detention had become the rule rather than the exception even before the protest movement started, lawyers and human rights activists say.

But the Hirak protests made this legal tactic more visible.

Rights activists say that over a thousand people -- both those connected with the Hirak movement and others -- are in prison awaiting trial, despite recent presidential pardons.

RAJ activist Addad remembered a 23-year-old man he had met in jail, whose only family member was a brother.

He "has been in pre-trial detention for 18 months because of a brawl. He doesn't have the money to pay a lawyer," he said.

Some 20-30 percent of detainees in the capital's El Harrach prison are in pre-trial detention, Addad said.

"That's unacceptable. Some spend months in prison before being acquitted," he added.

Those hit hardest by preventive detention, rights activist Chouicha said, were the isolated and impoverished, locked "in an unfair confrontation with the real face of repression".

He recalled meeting a man in Oran prison who had been awaiting trial for six years on drug-related allegations.

"They don't know the mechanisms, or the people to contact. They have no money. Their families don't know who to turn to," he said.

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