Stop Persecuting a Religious Minority

The arrest of Mohamed Fali, president of Algeria’s Ahmadiyya community on August 28, 2017, is the latest example of a crackdown on the religious minority, Human Rights Watch said today.

Scores of Ahmadis have been prosecuted since June 2016, and some imprisoned for up to six months. Senior government officials have at times claimed that Ahmadis represent a threat to the majority Sunni Muslim faith, and accused them of collusion with foreign powers.

Mohamed Fali. © Private

“The persecution of Ahmadis and hateful speech from government ministers shows intolerance for minority faiths, whether they claim to be Muslim or not,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately release Mohamed Fali and other Algerian Ahmadis and stop attacking this defenseless minority.”

At 9 a.m. on August 28, police came to Fali’s home in Ain Sefra, in the province of Naama, and arrested him on the basis of a 15 February in absentia judgment sentencing him to 3 years in prison.. He is being held in Mostaganem prison.

Founded in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya community identifies itself as Muslim. There are an estimated 2,000 Ahmadis in Algeria, according to the community.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six Ahmadis who faced prosecution around the country, including Fali (before his arrest). Human Rights Watch also reviewed the case files in three trials.

Fali told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutions started in June 2016 in the Blida governorate, and spread to other areas. A year later, some 266 Ahmadis had faced charges around the country, Fali said. Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm this figure.

Authorities charged them under one or more of the following charges, Fali said: denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam; participation in an unauthorized association; collecting donations without a license; and possession and distribution of documents from foreign sources that endanger national security. At least 20 have faced a charge of practicing religion in an unauthorized place of worship under Algeria’s 2006 law governing non-Muslim religions, Fali told Human Rights Watch, even though Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim.

Fali said that convictions and sentences were issued in 123 cases, and have ranged from three months to four years in prison. There were four acquittals. The remaining 161 prosecutions are still in the investigative phase. Fali said 36 persons spent time behind bars, with the longest to date being six months.

Several Ahmadis have faced two or more trials, sometimes in different parts of the country. For example, Fali faces charges in six cases and is either under investigation or on trial in Blida, Chlef, Mostaganem, Boufarik, and Sétif. He spent three months in Chlef prison in provisional detention from February to May. Another Ahmadi, who did not want to be identified, said he was prosecuted in three different trials in Blida, Boufarik, and Chlef.

Fali told Human Rights Watch that the courts had placed under judicial control at least 70 Ahmadis facing prosecution. This required the defendants to sign in on a regular basis with the court.

Authorities have also denied Ahmadis the right to form an association, using broad language in the Associations Law that they had previously used to restrict the right of other Algerian groups to form associations. They demolished a building in Larbaa, in the province of Blida, that Ahmadis were intending to use as a place of worship and as the headquarters for their association, on the pretext that it was an “unauthorized place of worship.”

Several Ahmadis told Human Rights Watch that authorities confiscate religious books, documents about the Ahmadiyya faith, computers, identity cards, and passports during searches. One Ahmadi said that they confiscated his university diplomas and never returned them.

Ahmadi representatives told Human Rights Watch that at least 17 Ahmadis were suspended from their public-sector jobs. Human Rights Watch reviewed five of these suspensions; in each case, the only grounds provided were the ongoing prosecutions and court cases against the individual.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified, governments must ensure the right to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience of everyone under their jurisdiction, and in particular religious minorities. This right includes the freedom to exercise the religion or belief of one’s choice publicly or privately, alone or with others. Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion but states that “this freedom must be exercised in respect of the law.”

Hateful Speech

Government ministers have made several anti-Ahmadi comments. In October 2016, the Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa described the Ahmadi presence in Algeria as part of a “deliberate sectarian invasion” and declared that the government brought criminal charges against Ahmadis to “stop deviation from religious precepts.” In February, he stated that Ahmadis are damaging the very basis of Islam.

In an interview in April 2017, Aissa seemed to have tempered his position. He said that the Algerian statedoes not intend to fight the Ahmadiyya sect. However, on July 5, he reiterated his belief that Ahmadis are manipulated by “a foreign hand” aiming to destabilize the country, and accused their leaders of collusion with Israel.

In April, Ahmed Ouyahia, then chief of cabinet to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said that “there are no human rights or freedom of religion” in the matter of the Ahmadis, because “Algeria has been a Muslim country for 14 centuries.” He called on Algerians to “protect the country from the Shia and Ahmadiyya sects.”

Denial of the Right to Form an Association

On November 15, 2015, a group of Ahmadis held a constitutive general assembly to create a new association they called the “Ahmed al-Khair Association” (Ahmed Charity), whose objective, according to bylaws Human Rights Watch has reviewed, is to perform charity projects and to help poor and marginalized communities. On March 26, 2016, they submitted the founding documents to the Ministry of Interior to register the association, as required by the 2012 Associations Law. On May 26, they received a letter from the ministry notifying them of the refusal to register the association.

According to the ministry’s reply, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, the refusal is based mainly on articles 2 and 27 of the Associations Law. Article 2 gives the authorities broad leeway to refuse authorization if they deem the content and objectives of a group’s activities to violate Algeria’s “‘fundamental principles’ (constantes nationales) and values, public order, public morals, and the applicable laws and regulations.” Article 27 lists all the necessary papers and required documents that the association must provide to the ministry to be legally registered.

Interference with Faith During Trials

Authorities prosecuted the 266 Ahmadis under one or more charges: denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam, punishable by a prison term of three to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 Algerian dinars (US$908), under article 144 of the penal code; participation in an unauthorized association, under article 46 of the Associations Law, punishable by a prison sentence of three to six months and a fine of 100,000 to 300,000 dinars; collecting donations without a license, under articles 1 and 8 of the decree 03-77 of 1977 regulating donations; conducting worship in unauthorized places, under articles 7, 12, and 13 of Ordinance 06-03 Establishing the Conditions and Rules for the Exercise of non-Muslim Religions; and possession and distribution of documents from foreign sources threatening national security, under article 96-2 of the penal code, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Several Ahmadis and their lawyers told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors and trial judges asked defendants intrusive and offensive questions about their religious practice. For example, Salah Debbouz, a lawyer defending many of the prosecuted Ahmadis, said that in a hearing on June 21 before the Batna appeals court, the prosecutor asked defendants: “Why do you profess allegiance to a Hindu and not to the Prophet of Islam? Why do you pray alone and not in a Mosque as other Muslims do?”

Mohamed Fali said that the judge in his trial in the first instance court in Chlef, on May 22, 2017, asked him: “Do you believe that Muhammad is the last of the prophets? Why don’t you pray at the Friday prayer at the mosque?”

The judges’ reasoning in several convictions of Ahmadis, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, demonstrates that the trials are based on religious arguments.

For example, the written judgment against six Ahmadis at the first instance court of Batna, dated March 27, 2017, states that the gendarmerie, while monitoring the activities of the religious groups in its region, received information about the existence of a group of people belonging to the Ahmadiyya faith. They searched their houses and seized all their books, computers, and other documents related to the “offense.” When the gendarmerie interrogated them, they admitted belonging to the Ahmadiyya community and exercising their faith in private settings. They also provided information on why and when they joined the faith. The judgment cites as its basis for the guilty verdict these statements attributed to the six defendants by the police.

The written judgment includes quotes from the representative of the Ministry of Religious Affairs who said that the ministry decided to join the case as a civil party (partie civile) because the Ahmadis were disseminating “ideas that are foreign to Algerian society that could have a dangerous impact on the beliefs of the society and its stability.”

To justify a guilty finding on the charge of distributing foreign material harmful to national security, the court cites only the seizing of books printed in Great Britain and documents printed from an Ahmadiyya website. It states, “[t]hese books and publications contain ideas that are alien to the national religious framework and this leads necessarily to harming the national interest.” The court defines national interest as being “the economic, military, cultural, or religious principles of the state,” and finds that Ahmadiyya doctrine challenges the national religious identity, which is based on the Malekite rite of Islam.

Based on this reasoning, the court convicted the accused of denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam, participation in an unauthorized association, collecting donations without a license, possession and distribution of documents from foreign sources threatening national security, and sentenced them to four years in prison and a 300,000 dinar fine. It did not retain the charge of practicing religious rites in unauthorized places, stating that Ordinance 06-03 applies only to non-Muslims whereas Ahmadis claim to be Muslims. The defendants have filed an appeal against this verdict, Debbouz, their lawyer, said.

Human Rights Watch reviewed two other judgments, one issued by the first instance court in Chlef on May 22, 2017, the second by the first instance court in Blida on January 31, 2017. In both judgments, the courts refer to the circumstances of the arrest, stating that gendarmerie started an investigation after receiving information that the Ahmadis were threatening “the appearance of the religion” and “undermining Islam.”

Cases

Mohamed Fali, president of the Jamaa Islamia Ahmadia in Algeria (The Islamic Ahmadiyya community), 44, tradesman, lives in Bousmail, Tipaza

Fali told Human Rights Watch that he has faced six distinct trials since June 2016. On June 2, 2016, gendarmes and municipal authorities came to demolish the building the Ahmadis were constructing in Larbaa, Blida province, for meetings and prayers. The same day, around 20 gendarmes came to arrest Fali and search his home. They confiscated his computer and books about the Ahmadiyya faith. He stayed five days in the gendarmerie detention center, where he was interrogated, before the first instance court in Blida provisionally released him.