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Amnesty calls on Algerian authorities to stop 'persecuting peaceful protesters'

Despite concessions, Algiers has intensified policing at demonstrations, rights group says
Algerians have taken to the streets since last February to demand purge of country's old ruling elite (Reuters)

Amnesty International has called on Algerian authorities to release all anti-government protesters and "immediately halt a campaign of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions".

Algerians have taken to the streets for more than a year demanding the dismissal of corrupt politicians and individuals who had ties to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was forced to resign last April.

More than 1,400 people have been prosecuted for participating in the weekly protests, the rights group said on Thursday, citing local humanitarian organisations.

After presidential elections last December that were largely boycotted, the government detained at least 76 protesters, including civil society activists, journalists and political leaders, Amnesty said.

Persecuting peaceful protesters is certainly not the response Algerians who have taken to the streets and demanded wide-ranging reforms were waiting for.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International's MENA director

The charges they face include "harming national security," "harming the army's morale" and "offending public officials".

"The Algerian authorities are deploying the threat of criminal trials against dozens of peaceful protesters, apparently in a bid to intimidate and silence critical voices," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Persecuting peaceful protesters is certainly not the response Algerians who have taken to the streets and demanded wide-ranging reforms were waiting for."

On Thursday, Algeria's state prosecutor requested that Karim Tabbou, a key figure in the anti-government demonstrations, be given a prison sentence of four years for "inciting violence" and undermining "the morale" of the army.

Tabbou has been detained since September .

Amnesty noted that it would be monitoring protests that take place on Fridays and would intensify calls for the government to allow for the peaceful assembly of demonstrators.

The Algerian government has made several concessions by detaining and charging senior figures close to Bouteflika with corruption, including his brother, who has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

Former prime ministers Abdelmalek Sellal and Ahmed Ouyahia, as well as former intelligence chiefs Mohamed Mediene and Athmane Tartag have also been jailed.

At the same time, the government has intensified policing at demonstrations and detained prominent activists.

Amnesty reported that on 29 February, a group of 56 peaceful protesters were arbitrarily arrested.

According to one of their lawyers, at least 20 of them were charged with "incitement to unarmed gathering".

"We call on the authorities in Algeria to immediately halt their campaign of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions," Luther said.

"All those detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly must be immediately and unconditionally released and have all charges against them dropped," he added.