22nd Feb 2020

EU Parliament chief condemns Algeria crackdown

  • Algerian and Tunisian flags (Photo: Flickr)

European Parliament President and one-time Polish democracy activist Jerzy Buzek has called on Algeria's pro-Western government, ostensibly an elected constitutional republic but whose military retains a veto over decision-making, to release democracy activists that have been arrested.

Over the weekend, the government cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations that had sprung up in the wake of the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. The interior ministry claims that 14 people were arrested, but human rights groups say that around 300 individuals have been detained.

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"I call upon the Algerian authorities to refrain from violence and respect their citizens' right to peaceful demonstration," said Mr Buzek in a statement on Saturday (12 February), the first EU-level leader to comment on events in the country.

He also called for a lifting of the state of emergency, in place since the army, with the support of Western governments, cancelled elections in 1992 after the Islamic Salvation Front won a majority.

"Any and all demonstrators arrested should be released immediately. The continuing state of emergency is unjustifiable and clearly hampers Algeria's prospects for the fair, peaceful and sustainable development of the country."

Earlier this month President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he was to lift the state of emergency, but has so far not moved on his promise.

"It is but a first step in responding to the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Algerian people, but even this step has yet to materialise," noted the EU leader.

"Opposition groups, civil society, and especially young people should have the right to freely express their criticism of the government. No government can ignore the call of its people."

Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, also said his country was "on the side of democrats"

"The German government calls on the Algerian government to renounce all recourse to violence," he told ARD television.

"These are demonstrators who want freedom, who are doing nothing more than exercising a human right, to know the right to defend with dignity their point of view."

"As democrats we are on the side of democrats. I have already said that about Tunisia and Egypt. I say it again now in allusion to other countries," he added.

The US response has been more muted.

"We note the ongoing protests in Algeria, and call for restraint on the part of the security services," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement on Sunday.

Demonstrations have been illegal in the country for almost two decades.

Requests for comment from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton over the weekend by EUobserver were not met with a response.

An anti-government rally in the capital of some 10,000 people organised by the National Co-ordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD) was broken up by an estimated 30,000 riot police. Smaller protests were also held in Annaba, Constantine and Oran.

The CNCD, an alliance of opposition parties, human rights groups - including the Algerian Human Rights Defence League (Ligue algérienne de défense des droits de l'homme - LADDH) and trade unions, has issued a call for another mass demonstration on 19 February and every Saturday until the government falls.

A general strike in the coming days has also been organised. According the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a Liberal Berber party that participates in the CNCD, the strike will be of a political rather than an economic nature.

Algeria was already rocked by riots earlier this year over soaring food prices, particularly milk, sugar, flour and cooking oil, prompting President Bouteflika to cut costs on some staples and reduce import duties.

The demonstrations also reflect growing frustration at the unofficial unemployment rate of 25 percent.

Algeria however is a vital energy ally of the EU, the sixth largest natural gas producer in the world.

Europe gets 20 percent of its natural gas from the country and 30 percent of its liquified natural gas (LNG). In 2008, some 90 percent of its LNG exports went to Europe.

Similar demonstrations broke out in Yemen, with hundreds of students marching on the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa and later the presidential palace, where the protests grew to some 2000 people.

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