ALGERIA: THE ARBITRARY DETENTION OF ABDERRAHMANE ZITOUT SUBMITTED TO THE UN WORKING GROUP

عبد الرحمان زيتوت

On 30 September 2022, Alkarama submitted to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention the case of Abderrahmane Zitout who was arrested on 30 March 2022 at 6pm by a dozen armed police officers in plain clothes while he was in his clothing shop located on the ground floor of his family home.

Arrest of Mr. Aberrahmane Zitout

Mr. Abderrahmane ZITOUT is the brother of Mr. Mohamed Larbi ZITOUT. A former Algerian diplomat, he went into exile in London in 1995 where he obtained the status of political refugee after revealing and denouncing the serious human rights violations committed by the Algerian state forces during the civil war (1993-2000).

He has since been a political opponent in exile calling for the establishment of the rule of law and democracy in the country and an end to the military's control of the Algerian state. Mr. Mohamed Zitout was recently listed as a "terrorist" because of his involvement in the Rachad Movement, a pacifist political movement of which he is the co-founder. This movement, without any ideological label, calls for the establishment of the rule of law and democracy in Algeria, in accordance with its statutes and its Charter.

The brother of this political activist, Mr Abderrahmane Zitout, was arrested on 30 March 2022 at 6pm by a dozen armed agents, some of whom were in uniform and others in civilian clothes and masked, while he was in his clothing shop on the ground floor of his family home. The police searched his premises and home and then took him away to an unknown destination.
 
Despite the searches carried out by his family, his place of detention was not revealed and Mr. Abderrahmane Zitout remained detained incommunicado until 4 April 2022, when his family learned that he was in the prison of El Harrach (suburb of Algiers).

During a first visit by his family to the prison, Mr. Abderrahmane Zitout reported that he had spent the five days following his arrest at the central police station in Algiers, where he was questioned at length by agents of the judicial police. He testified that he was questioned about his ties with his brother residing in London, the type of relationship he has with the latter and whether he shares his political beliefs. He also reported that he was questioned about the events related to the widespread "Hirak" protest movement as well as about the financial assistance that Mr Mohamed Larbi Zitout and his other brothers living in Europe allegedly provided to their parents. At no time did the agents question him about "subversive activities", or about an alleged "membership of a terrorist group" or about "publishing false news".

Continued detention despite lack of evidence

It was therefore with great surprise that he was accused of these crimes and offences when he was presented on 5 April 2022 before the public prosecutor of the Sidi-Mhamed court (Algiers).

These charges were based on the alleged testimony of Mr Mohamed Benhalima, a former military officer turned whistleblower who denounced corruption among senior officials in the Algerian army on social networks from Spain, where he had taken refuge and where he had applied for asylum in 2019.

In disturbing circumstances, while Algeria and Spain were negotiating a gas supply agreement, Mr Mohamed Benhalima's asylum applications were rejected without possibility of appeal in violation of the non-refoulement obligation. The Spanish Ministry of the Interior then merely alleged without evidence that Mr Benhalima had participated́ in "activities contrary to public securitý or likely to harm Spanish relations with foreign states".

Delivered to Algeria by a special Iberia flight chartered by the Spanish authorities, Mr Benhalima subsequently reported to his lawyers that he had been subjected to severe acts of torture inflicted in order to force him to make statements on public television broadcast at prime time, which were used, among other things, to "justify" the arrest of Mr Abderrahmane Zitout.

Despite the total absence of material elements in his file, excluding Mr. Benhalima's forced statements, the investigating judge ordered his detention. On 7 April 2022, his lawyers appealed against the order of the investigating judge to the Indictment Division. However, on 20 April 2022, this court, under the de facto supervision of the executive, confirmed the order to place Mr. Abderrahmane Zitout in detention on the pretext that "the facts for which the accused is being prosecuted are very serious.

In order to challenge the arbitrary nature of his detention, Mr Abderrahmane Zitout went on hunger strike from 14 August to 1 September 2022. During this period, he was placed in isolation in a small cell deprived of daylight. Following the deterioration of his health, he was evacuated to hospital as an emergency measure until 11 September 2022.

Mr Abderrahmne Zitout, victim of arbitrary detention

Mandated by his family, Alkarama submitted his case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, indicating that Mr Abderrahmane Zitout had been arrested for the sole reason that he was the brother of a political opponent in exile in London.

Mr Mohamed Zitout's peaceful political activism, as well as his involvement in the Rachad Movement, led the Algerian authorities to place him on the list of persons classified as "terrorists". Although it is a movement without any ideological label that advocates in its Charter and statutes political change through non-violence, it is described by the Algerian authorities as an "Islamist movement" and a "terrorist movement" with the obvious aim of provoking its rejection in the West and justifying the use of the usual counter-terrorist discourse to discredit its members.

In a joint communication dated 27 December 2021, several UN experts had already expressed their concerns about the Algerian anti-terrorist law. This same law is strongly criticized by the UN experts for lacking clarity in its definition of terrorism and for extending its scope to incriminate acts relating to freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly.
Alkarama stressed that the real cause of the arrest and detention of Mr Abderrahmane Zitout is reprisals against his brother for his political and media activism and his use of his rights guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Alkarama therefore called on the Working Group to recognize the arbitrary nature of the deprivation of liberty of Mr Abderrahmane Zitout and to urge Algeria to release him immediately and to refrain in the future from any act of reprisal against the relatives of political dissidents established abroad.

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