Algerians were unable to access social media accounts on Sunday as students sat national exams in the North African country where authorities are cracking down on cheating.
Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were inaccessible, an AFP journalist said, while the internet faced disruptions across the country.
The move came a day after the justice ministry announced that a teenager had been sentenced to one year in jail for having shared the results of an Arabic-language test online.
The boy was sentenced Wednesday by a court in the northeastern city of Guelma in line with a penal code amendment adopted in April that criminalised cheating during the brevet and baccalaureate examinations, usually taken at the end of secondary and high school, respectively.
After a spike in cheating during national exams in recent years, authorities in the North African country adopted legislation under which those found guilty of wrongdoing could face up to 15 years in jail.
According to the justice ministry, courts in Algeria have begun to hand down jail sentences to individuals accused of having leaked exam papers or results during the brevet earlier this month.
In 2016, authorities temporarily blocked access to social networks to prevent cheating after leaked papers forced hundreds of thousands of students to resit the baccalaureate exam.
Authorities then arrested dozens of people, including the heads of national exam centres and teachers on suspicion of leaking the final exam papers.
There was no official comment Sunday from authorities or telecom officials on the internet disruptions and the lack of access to social networks.
The baccalaureate exams, which began Sunday, are due to last until September 17.
Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune on Wednesday sacked Employment Minister Ahmed Chawki Fouad Acheuk Youcef, his office offering no reason for the move.
Tebboune “today signed a decree ending Mr Ahmed Chawki Fouad Acheuk Youcef’s tenure as works, labour, employment and social security minister,” the presidency said in a statement published by the official APS agency.
It also named an interim replacement, Kaoutar Krikou who is already the national solidarity minister.
M. Acheuk Youcef, 64 ans, was named to the post in January as part of Tebboune’s first goverment since his December 2019 election.
He was reappointed during a government reshuffle in June that saw the energy and finance ministers replaced — two of the key sectors in Algeria’s economy.
The North African country is very vulnerable to falls in oil prices. Confronted also by a political crisis and a rise in COVID-19 cases, fears are growing of a financial crash and social unrest.
Mass protests swept Algeria early last year in response to ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fifth term in office.
They swiftly morphed into demands for a sweeping overhaul of the political system, carrying on well beyond Bouteflika’s April 2019 resignation.
Last month Bouteflika was sentenced to 16 years in prison on corruption charges.
The protests were only suspended in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country.
Acheuk Youcef is the second minister to leave the government since the June reshuffle.
Samir Chaabna, minister for the Algerian diaspora was fired barely four days after his appointment due to his double French-Algerian nationality.
An Algerian court on Sunday sentenced prominent anti-government activist Amira Bouraoui to a year in prison, amid a growing climate of repression, one of her lawyers told AFP.
“This conviction is unjust, there is no evidence. We are going to appeal,” lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi said.
Bouraoui, a 44-year-old gynaecologist, is a prominent activist in the “Hirak” protest movement that secured the resignation of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika last April.
The mother of two was convicted on six counts, including “insulting Islam”, “insulting the president” Abdelmadjid Tebboune and “incitement to violate lockdown” during the coronavirus pandemic.
She was also accused of inciting illegal protests, publishing “fake news” likely to jeopardise security or public order and comments that undermine national unity.
Prosecutors had sought 18 months imprisonment.
“These kind of lawsuits, which have been going on for months, won’t calm the political situation,” Bouchachi said.
“It’s not the best way to open up towards society, activists and this peaceful revolution,” he added, referring to the Hirak movement.
Bouraoui was taken into custody after being arrested at her home on Wednesday.
A former activist with the Barakat or “That’s Enough!” movement, she came to prominence in 2014 when she opposed Bouteflika running for a fourth term.
– New criminal code – In recent days Algerian authorities have arrested and prosecuted numerous activists in a bid to prevent protests from resuming when the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.
Most prosecutions are being carried out under a new penal code passed hastily on April 22 amid the public health crisis.
The recent wave of arrests and prosecutions has led some opposition activists to say that the rights situation in Algeria today is worse than during Bouteflika’s rule, particularly with regard to freedom of the press.
The North African country has gradually been relaxing its coronavirus lockdown measures since June 7.
But even though large gatherings have been forbidden since mid-March, hundreds of protesters turned out on Friday to resume the weekly protests that marked the political scene before the virus lockdown — particularly in the northwest Kabylie region, according to local sources.
The authorities arrested nearly 500 people across the country during Friday’s banned demonstrations, though most were subsequently released, said Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian Human Rights League (LADDH).
But of around 100 detained on Friday, nearly 20 were remanded in custody Sunday. The rest were either convicted and sentenced or freed pending trial.
Before the latest wave of arrests, the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD) said around 60 people linked to the Hirak movement were in detention.
The movement started in February 2019, and after obtaining the resignation of Bouteflika after 20 years in power, protests continued, demanding an overhaul of Algeria’s political system in place since independence from France in 1962.
Algeria will continue to use the drug hydroxychloroquine against the novel coronavirus, a member of its scientific committee said, despite the World Health Organization suspending clinical trials of such treatments.
“We’ve treated thousands of cases with this medicine, very successfully so far,” said Mohamed Bekkat, a member of the scientific committee on the North African country’s Covid-19 outbreak.
“We haven’t noted any undesirable reactions,” he told AFP.
Public figures including US President Donald Trump have backed the drug as a virus treatment, prompting governments to bulk buy — despite several studies showing it to be ineffective and even increasing COVID-19 hospital deaths.
Bekkat’s comments came days after medical journal The Lancet published a study of nearly 100,000 coronavirus patients, showing no benefit in those treated with the drug, which is normally used against arthritis.
The study found that administering the medicine or, separately, the related anti-malarial chloroquine, actually increased Covid-19 patients’ risk of dying.
The death of a pregnant Algerian doctor from the COVID-19 disease after she was denied maternity leave has sparked an uproar and prompted the dismissal of a hospital director.
Health Minister Abderrahman Benbouzid sacked the director of the Ras El Oued hospital in eastern Algeria after Wafa Boudissa succumbed to COVID-19, a source close to the case told AFP.
The 28-year-old doctor was eight months pregnant and worked at the IC surgery unit of the hospital when she died on Friday.
She had asked the hospital chief, who was not named, for early maternity leave, but he refused to let her take any time off.
Colleagues of the victim had backed her request and signed a petition in solidarity, one of them said.
Benbouzid on Saturday ordered an investigation into the death of Boudissa and, in an unprecedented move, tasked the inspector general of the health ministry to head the probe.
The source close to the case said that anyone found directly responsible for her death could face trial for negligent homicide.
State television meanwhile broadcast footage showing Benbouzid visiting the hospital and then Boudissa’s family home to offer his condolences.
In the footage, Benbouzid said he could not comprehend why a pregnant woman was forced to work, while Boudissa’s co-workers denounced those behind her death.
A presidential decree released at the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic had stated that pregnant women and those raising children were among individuals allowed to take exceptional leave from work.
According to officially declared figures, Algeria has registered 6,821 cases of coronavirus, including 542 deaths, since February.
The Algerian regime is exploiting coronavirus to defeat a protest movement that has shaken it to its core over the last year, analysts say.
Despite protesters deciding to halt their weekly gatherings since the start of the public health crisis, repression of regime opponents has persisted.
Security forces have targeted young bloggers, independent journalists, online media and activists from the “Hirak” protest movement.
Rapidly adopted laws ostensibly aimed at preventing the dissemination of false news and hate speech have further stoked fears of an orchestrated campaign to muzzle free expression.
The new laws “aim to repress citizens’ freedom of expression,” said lawyer and activist Abdelouhab Chiter, a lecturer at the University of Bejaia.
A law on “spreading false information”, he said, “was debated and passed by parliament in a single sitting, in the absence of almost half of its members”.
Akram Belkaid, a journalist for the Oran daily, warned of “a return to the iron fist as in the 1970s”.
“Hirak won the first leg of the game,” he said.
“The regime is on course to win the second leg, and its true goal is to prevent any further rematches being held at all — or in other words, to prevent protests reoccurring once the pandemic has been overcome.”
– Police & judicial harassment –
Karima Direche, a historian specialising in contemporary Maghreb region affairs, said the pandemic was “bread from heaven for the regime”.
“The confinement period lends itself to police and judicial harassment. This explains the dozens of arrests of known and unknown people in all Algeria’s cities,” she said.
“The detentions and judgements prove once again that the judicial regime is totally subservient to the executive”.
The protest movement, calling for the full-scale overhaul of a system in place since independence in 1962, scored one major success: it toppled Abdelaziz Bouteflika after two decades in power.
Members of the unprecedented, leaderless and diverse movement had vowed to continue their mass demonstrations “until they’re all gone!”
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in a poll that drew less than 40 percent turnout, has said that “a true democracy (is built on) a strong state with justice and national cohesion”.
He also cites “national sovereignty” to justify censorship measures against websites he accuses of being in the pay of foreign organisations.
In the face of Tebboune and the army, which Direche sees as more influential than ever, the political opposition is weak and divided.
“The regime has won on the ground, consolidated by the reprieve offered by the pandemic and the absence of an alternative vision,” writer Kamel Daoud told the Swiss daily Le Temps in late April.
But, he noted, there is “not one regime, but several, competing among themselves — some tempted by real reforms, others set on accumulating ever more control”.
– ‘Ideas don’t die’ –
And while its adversary may have been weakened, the regime has been hit by the double blow of the novel coronavirus and a collapse in oil prices.
As crude sales account for 90 percent of the state’s foreign revenues, that is likely to necessitate deep spending cuts, risking economic disaster and further social disruption.
“The government is more concerned with reviving economic, social and educational activity than any resurgence of the Hirak,” said Mansour Kedidir of the Research Centre for Social and Cultural Anthropology (CRASC) in the second city Oran.
By implementing promised constitutional and institutional reforms, Tebboune “plans to breathe new life into the economy and establish credit in society,” Kedidir said.
“It’ll be a tough job.”
Tebboune plans to insert a mention of the “blessed Hirak” in the preamble of the constitution, effectively declaring it over.
A prominent campaigner for the release of detained protest figure Karim Tabbou, the biomedical researcher Asma Mechakra, said the government wants to use the health crisis and the lockdown to “break up” the Hirak.
“But the regime fails to see that the Hirak is all about ideas and ideas don’t die,” she told AFP.
“Maybe my generation won’t see the change, but we will have laid the groundwork for the blossoming of a new Algeria.”
An Algerian military court on Monday upheld a 15-year prison term for the brother of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and two ex-intelligence chiefs convicted of conspiracy against the state, a lawyer said.
The once-mighty Said Bouteflika, 62, was long seen as the real power behind the presidency after his brother suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013.
He had served as a key presidential aide but was detained in May last year, a month after Bouteflika quit office weeks into mass protests against his bid for a fifth presidential term.
In September Said Bouteflika, along with several other senior regime officials, was sentenced by a military tribunal to 15 years in jail for “conspiring” against the state and undermining the army’s authority.
Their convictions were the most high-profile in a string of prosecutions of prominent politicians and businessmen after Bouteflika was pushed out in April after two decades in power.
A court in Blida, south of Algiers, began hearing an appeal against the sentences on Sunday behind closed doors and amid heavy security.
Algeria’s state prosecutor sought an increased penalty of 20 years in jail, lawyers said, but the court confirmed the original sentences.
“Said Bouteflika, General (Athmane) Tartag and General (Mohamed Lamine) Mediene received 15 years in prison. The initial verdict was confirmed,” lawyer Boudjemaa Guechir told AFP.
Mediene, known as “Toufik”, headed the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security for 25 years and was sentenced in September alongside the former president’s brother.
Also in court were Mediene’s former right-hand man, Tartag, and Louisa Hanoune, who had served as secretary-general of the left-wing Workers’ Party.
Guechir, who represented Hanoune, said her initial sentence of 15 years was reduced to three years before she was released late Monday and greeted by waiting relatives.
The four defendants were accused of having met in March 2019 in a bid to derail plans by the army high command to force the departure of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Said Bouteflika allegedly wanted the intelligence bosses to dismiss the army chief of staff at the time, General Ahmed Gaid Salah.
Defence lawyers had hoped the four would be released after Algeria’s balance of power shifted following the December 23 death of Gaid Salah at the age of 79.
“I am disappointed but not discouraged,” said Farouk Kessentini, Mediene’s lawyer, adding they planned to appeal to the Supreme Court on points of law.
An Algerian anti-government protest movement that began almost a year ago and brought down Bouteflika has continued, demanding the dismantling of the political system and its representatives who have been in power for several decades.
Tartag’s lawyer, Me Khaled Bergheul, said his client had been held “hostage” to protest movement.
“It’s a heavy penalty. My client knows very well that the economic situation in the country is not conducive to a light verdict,” he told AFP.
Twelve people were killed and another 46 injured when two buses collided early Sunday in Algeria’s northeast, emergency services said, in the latest tragedy of its kind in the North African country.
Emergency teams arrived at “around 1:10 am (0010 GMT) following a fatal accident, a collision between two buses, on the state highway near the city of Astil” in the province of Biskra, 500 km southeast of Algiers, a statement said.
“Twelve people, aged 19 to 73, were killed and 46 were injured,” it added.
Public radio quoted Ahmed Baoudji, director of emergency services for the nearby city of El Oued, as saying preliminary investigations indicated speeding was the probable cause.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune offered his condolences to the victims’ families and asked Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad to oversee assistance, the radio added, while Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud and Health Minister Abderrahmane Benbouzid went to the scene.
According to the national road safety commission, a government agency, 3,275 people were killed in road crashes in Algeria in 2019 and more than 30,000 injured — fewer than in previous years.
It also reported a small decrease in the number of accidents — almost 22,000 — compared to 2018.
Last month Tunisia and Morocco, which neighbour Algeria, were in mourning after two bus crashes that were among the deadliest in the region. On December 1, 30 people died in northwest Tunisia, and at least 17 were killed the same day in the north of Morocco.
The president of protest-hit Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, plans to outlaw “hate speech” that has proliferated on social networks in recent months, his office said Monday.
Tebboune asked Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad to draft a bill “criminalising all forms of racism … and hate speech in the country,” according to a statement published by the official APS press agency.
The new initiative follows “an upsurge in hate speech and incitement,” the presidential statement said.
Algerian social networks have become a battleground for rival political camps after they gave rise to the popular “Hirak” protest movement that in April ended the 20-year reign of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The tone became more aggressive in the run-up to a December 12 presidential election, held in the face of strong opposition from the protest movement which saw the polls as an attempt by the establishment to consolidate its power.
All five candidates who ran in the poll had links to Bouteflika, with Tebboune having served as one of his prime ministers. Official turnout was less than 40 percent.
The law would allow authorities “to confront those who exploit the freedom and peaceful nature of Hirak” by brandishing “slogans that undermine national cohesion,” the statement said.
The initiative has sparked fierce debate on social media between those who back it and those who see it as an unneccessary measure, with some wary that it could give wide scope to crack down on legitimate protest.
The planned law stipulates that “everyone is called upon to comply with the Constitution and laws of the Republic, in particular respect for… the Nation state and its values… as well as the symbols of the state.”
Nearly a year after the launch of the popular movement, its activists continue to demand an end to the governing system in place since the country’s independence from France in 1962.