Human rights defenders denounce the expulsion by Spain of an Algerian dissident | Characteristics

Late last month, whistleblower and former Algerian gendarme Mohamed Benhalima made grim predictions about what lay ahead.

“If I go back to Algeria, they will violate my human rights. Jail and torture await me,” he told local Spanish media. Levant EMV while being held in a foreign internment camp in Valencia, southeastern Spain.

Days after sounding the alarm and raising concerns for his life, Benhalima was suddenly deported by Spanish authorities.

On the evening of March 24, he was repatriated to Algeria, where he was detained upon arrival.

A video from the moment quickly surfaced and spread online, showing Benhalima being escorted from the plane in handcuffs and transferred to a vehicle by members of the Algerian Research and Intervention Brigade.

There has been no official confirmation of his whereabouts, but the former gendarme is believed to be held at the Antar detention center in Ben Aknoun.

Peaceful protests

Benhalima has been actively involved with the Algerian opposition in recent years. In 2019, he joined the Hirak movement, a nationwide wave of peaceful protests that demanded widespread political reform and the removal of military intervention in national politics.

His involvement in the protests was prompted by his experience in the Algerian army, which he joined in 2009.

In 2016, he was transferred to the Ministry of Defense, where he “started to discover the truth about the criminals who command in Algeria”, as he said in a video he released while he was detained in Spain.

Benhalima’s participation in the protests was, unsurprisingly, not well received by his superiors in the military. He quickly learned that his name appeared on a list drawn up by the Algerian authorities detailing the soldiers involved in the Hirak movement.

He fled to Spain on September 1, 2019 and requested political asylum in February 2020.

Once abroad, Benhalima became a vocal figure in the Algerian opposition and actively engaged in online activism.

He began exposing and describing the corruption he had witnessed in the armed forces through his YouTube, Twitter and Facebook pages, where he amassed over 345,000 followers.

As he gained notoriety online, he coordinated action with other exiled dissidents such as Mohamed Larbi Zitout, one of the leading figures of the anti-government Rachad movement, and his former colleague -constable turned whistleblower Mohamed Abdellah.

Accused of “terrorism”

As a result, Benhalima received two separate convictions in absentia in January and March 2021 for a total of 20 years in prison.

The January 2021 court verdict sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his alleged “participation in a terrorist group”, and the March 2021 court decision sentenced him to an additional 10 years in prison for “publishing false news undermining national unity”, according to an Amnesty International declaration.

Algerian authorities’ terrorism charges have long been taken with a grain of salt, with Amnesty Branding them “wrong”.

“The Algerian authorities have not yet presented credible evidence that Benhlima is a terrorist and that he was involved in or was planning acts of violence. The authorities have only made broad and vague accusations that he is a member of Rachad. Algerian authorities have brought terrorism charges against many peaceful activists and crushed dissent, which casts doubt on the terrorism charge,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East. and North Africa at Al Jazeera.

During his activism, Benhalima has been in contact with the opposition group Rachad, classified last year as a “terrorist group” by the Algerian government.

“It’s a bit reductive and unfair [of Spain] to treat anyone involved in these movements as a threat to national security. Benhalima’s denunciation was instrumentalised, controlled and exploited by the Rachad movement. Calling him a terrorist is in line with official policy and cannot be truly representative of the situation here,” Zine Ghebouli, an Algerian political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

Days after being taken into police custody in Algeria, Benhalima made his last public appearance to date – on a TV show where he confessed to the charges against him.

Questions surrounding the confession and its legitimacy quickly surfaced among opposition circles, mostly driven by the fact that Benhalima himself predicted it would happen.

In a video recorded just two days before his deportation, he warned that such a confessional video was likely to be released, adding that if it happened it would mean he had been “subjected to severe torture by the security services. information”.

Doubtful deportation

Benhalima’s deportation is a carbon copy of the case of fellow ex-gendarme turned whistleblower Mohamed Abdellah, who was expelled from Spain in August 2021. Both cases are shrouded in legal concerns, tenuous allegations and fears of human rights violations.

On March 14, Benhalima was arrested during a routine police check in Zaragoza where he was told that his asylum application had been rejected on July 13, 2021, which his lawyers claimed he was not. unaware because the decision had not been recorded in the official register. digital register.

He was then sent to the internment camp for foreigners in Valence, pending his deportation. While there, Benhalima filed a new request for political asylum on March 18.

At 5:35 p.m. on March 24, he was told that his second asylum application had not been successful. Barely three minutes later, Benhalima was notified of his expulsion order. At 6:41 p.m., his legal team was notified of his impending deportation, and at 7:45 p.m. Benhalima was on a direct flight to Algeria.

Benhalima’s legal team called the case “scandalous” and denounced the haste of the Spanish government.

“The Ministry [of interior] acted despotically because he tried to circumvent the rule of law. Because of the precedent set by Abdellah, we knew the government would act quickly. Not only that, but maneuvering to make it as difficult as possible to prevent the deportation,” Alejandro Gámez Selma, a lawyer handling the case, told Al Jazeera.

Benhalima’s deportation order, seen by Al Jazeera, said the former gendarme posed “a threat to Spanish security”, although his legal team discredited the allegation due to a lack of evidence.

His arrest and deportation drew strong criticism from several national and international human rights organizations.

Letter from UNHCR

UNHCR even sent a private letter to the Spanish authorities, seen by Al Jazeera, urging them to properly assess Benhalima’s case and ensure he receives thorough legal attention and due process. A request that the Spanish government apparently ignored.

Amnesty International has also denounced the fact that the assurances supposedly granted to asylum seekers and those fleeing the expected torture were not taken into account by the Spanish authorities.

“The Spanish government has shown its determination to forcibly return a person whose physical and psychological integrity was not guaranteed. In doing so, Spain flouted crucial obligations under international law that prohibit governments from returning people to a country where they would risk being tortured,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

Like Abdellah before him, Benhalima lacked the usual right of no return or the voluntary departure periodlegal guarantees traditionally provided to immigrants that allow them greater protection and viable alternatives.

Gámez Selma said the legal team had “no hope” that the issue would be positively resolved once Benhalima was detained, and that their main objective was for the case to be decided in court.

“It is certainly not a usual administrative procedure and it shows a particular interest in ensuring that the procedure is carried out before it can be subjected to the control of the judges. The question was whether the police were going to have enough democratic practice to wait for a judge to decide whether or not to proceed with the eviction. But they decided to guarantee the desired result,” the lawyer said.

Asked about the legal concerns surrounding Benhalima’s eviction, a source from Spain’s Interior Ministry said authorities acted legally.

“The deportation procedure was conducted according to the law concerning a person who applied for international protection twice and was refused in both cases, there is not much else” , the ministry source told Al Jazeera.

The ministry source did not elaborate on the human rights concerns surrounding Benhalima’s case.

Algerian authorities did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Algerian appeasement

Questions have also been raised about the timing of Benhalima’s expulsion, fearing it was used as a political maneuver to improve strained relations between Spain and Algeria.

Tensions escalated last month after Spain angered Algeria by deciding to support Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

“Benhalima’s extradition came five days after this incident, which could signal that the Spanish authorities are still keen to appease their Algerian counterparts.

“It is a purely pragmatic choice in a political way. Unless the opposition to these extraditions becomes extremely present in Spanish politics, I am not sure that Spain would change its position because there is a geopolitical interest. Relations with Algeria are extremely important for Madrid,” said Ghebouli.

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