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Eurasia Review

Authorities in Algeria are using – and even going beyond – the restrictive 2012 Law on Associations to stifle freedom of association. The authorities have been arbitrarily rejecting or refusing to process registration applications from organizations, putting both new and long established independent organizations in legal limbo and curtailing their ability to receive foreign funding or to hold public meetings.
Associations trying to register get lost in a bureaucratic labyrinth, unable to file their applications and sometimes obliged to work in the margins of the law, Human Rights Watch concluded after studying law 12-06 on associationsand interviewing more than 20 activists from nongovernmental groups.

“Algeria needs to have a vibrant public debate ahead of the April 17 presidential elections,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “There’s much the government needs to do to create an environment for credible elections, but one important step would be to allow Algerians to form associations, meet, and organize events without hindrance.”

On April 15, 2011, after popular protests ousted authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and were challenging Libya’s, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised a package of political and legislative reforms. But the new law on associations, promulgated in January 2012, has in numerous ways proven more restrictive than the law it replaced, Human Rights Watch found.

Law 12-06 requires associations to obtain a registration receipt from authorities before they can legally operate. Authorities can refuse to register an associationif they decide that the content and objectives of a group’s activities are contrary to Algeria’s “‘fundamental principles’ (constantes nationales) and values, public order, public morals and the applicable laws and regulations.” These vague criteria give authorities broad leeway to block a group’s legalization.

Under the previous law, the administration had to petition an administrative court to rule an association’s constitution illegal. Now, it can do so itself, and it is up to the affected association to appeal the rejection before an administrative court.

In practice, authorities have been disobeying the requirement under the law to issue a deposit receipt when an association’s founders submit its registration documents. Issuing that receipt marks the start of a period for the authorities to review the registration. If they do not object within that period, the association may begin functioning legally. However, associations with agendas that may displease authorities, such as independent human rights or anti-corruption groups, report that authorities have withheld the provisional receipt, depriving them of proof of the date when they complied with the registration requirements.

Some associations in this situation continue to operate, but on the margins of the law, unable to open a bank account or rent an office in their own name, or hire a public hall for a meeting. Moreover, members of an association that is “non-accredited, suspended, or dissolved” risk prison sentences of up to six months for conducting activities in its name.

“Algerian authorities tend not to crush independent associations that bother them outright,” Goldstein said. “They prefer to weaken and marginalize them by consigning them to a legal purgatory.”

Law 12-06 empowers the government to suspend an association if it “interferes with the internal affairs of the state or violates national sovereignty.” The law also makes any “cooperation agreement” between an Algerian association and international groups conditional on the government’s prior approval. The previous law required prior approval only for an Algerian association’s “membership” in an international organization but not for a “cooperation agreement.” This effectively gives authorities broad discretion to prevent various forms of cooperation between national and international associations.

The law obliges associations that registered under the old law to file a new application or be dissolved automatically. At least four independent groups that tried to comply encountered administrative obstacles, such as the refusal by authorities to make public halls available to them to hold a required general assembly meeting or the failure to issue the receipt for their registration documents.

Abdelwahab Farsaoui, secretary general of the association Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse – RAJ), established in 1992, and Noureddine Benissaad, head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, established in the mid-1980s, said that when they tried in June and December 2013, respectively, to deposit their new statutes at the Interior Ministry, they could not get an appointment. They sent their documents by registered mail, but received no confirmation, so lacked proof that they had filed their application on time. Both had been duly registered under the previous law.

The new law maintains the requirement for prior authorization for an Algerian association to receive foreign funding, but adds a new requirement that there be a pre-existing cooperation agreement. Members of several groups told Human Rights Watch that the administration imposes cumbersome procedures for this authorization that forces them to choose either to operate at the margins of the law or to forego foreign grants that they need to function effectively.

For example, the League for the Protection of Youth and Children, based in the city of Tizi Ouzou, sought authorization in vain to receive funding from the Catalonian Agency for Cooperation and Development and from the European Union for projects to curb violence against children and women, in April 2012 and January 2013, respectively. But the authorization never came, forcing the group to scale back its activities to a minimum level, said Ouisa Kebbas, the group’s secretary general.

Algerian authorities have long withheld legal recognition from some associations whose objectives challenge the official narrative. One is SOS Disappeared (SOS Disparu(e)s), which has made several attempts since 2002 to obtain registration. The group demands that the government reveal the fate and whereabouts of the thousands of Algerians who were forcibly disappeared during the country’s civil strife in the 1990s.

More recently, in October 2012, authorities refused to register the National Association to Fight Corruption (Association algérienne de lutte contre la corruption), providing no justification for the decision, said Halim Feddal, the group’s deputy secretary general.

“Both the Associations Law itself and the way the authorities are implementing it are totally at odds with Algeria’s international obligations to guarantee freedom of association,” said Goldstein. “The government should revise the law to bring it in line with international standards and instruct implementing authorities to stop arbitrarily hampering the work of bona fide associations.”

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