Algerian whistleblower imprisoned after Spain deportation

Mohamed Abdellah had been in exile in Spain since 2019 when he fled Algeria after exposing alleged corruption but was sent back and is now imprisoned.

Abdellah now finds himself behind bars at an Algerian detention centre in the city of Kolea [Photo supplied to Al Jazeera]

Madrid, Spain – After joining the Algerian border patrol forces in 2013 the former gendarme Mohamed Abdellah started to suspect that something was amiss.

Abdellah was an aerial supervisor on the border patrol’s helicopters and as such was responsible for operating the surveillance cameras and monitoring activities across the border between Algeria and Tunisia.

During his time as an aerial supervisor, Abdellah alleges he encountered widespread corruption, bribery, fraudulent conduct, and contraband of arms and petrol across the border, fostered by high-ranking officers of the Algerian Gendarmerie.

Eventually, Abdellah opted to sound the alarm and report what he witnessed to his superiors, but his efforts were to no avail.

Today, Abdellah finds himself behind bars at an Algerian detention centre in the city of Kolea. He is awaiting military trial following his sudden extradition from Spain earlier this year, where he had sought political asylum.

Abdellah’s case is fraught with complexities, contrasting allegations, and set amid a charged political atmosphere.

His wife told Al Jazeera that upon raising the issue with his superiors he was given two simple choices: either turn a blind eye and ignore what he had seen, or choose to comply and engage with the corruption among the forces.

Instead, Abdellah turned to anti-corruption activists both in Algeria and abroad in hopes of finding support, and leaked information and evidence he had compiled. Sources close to Abdellah told Al Jazeera he soon started receiving threats and began fearing for his family’s safety.

Abdellah was accused of ‘undermining public order and the security and stability of the State’ [Photo supplied to Al Jazeera]

In November 2018, Abdellah fled to Spain with his wife and child, leaving his role in the Algerian Gendarmerie Nationale. He settled in Alicante, eastern Spain, and applied for political asylum in March 2019.

While in exile, Abdellah stepped up his activism and became more committed to exposing and denouncing the corruption he encountered in the armed forces. He started speaking out against the military and government through his YouTube and Facebook profiles and gained a substantial audience, amassing more than 265,000 followers.

This did not go down well with the Algerian authorities who allegedly issued him a military inculpation in May 2019 for the “disclosure of national defense secrets … the misdemeanour of fleeing abroad, insulting the national army, committing acts in violation of duty and order [and] insulting the President of the Republic”, according to documents seen by Al Jazeera.

A year later an international arrest warrant was issued for Abdellah – among another three prominent government critics – for “terrorism” charges.

The warrant accused Abdellah of “undermining public order and the security and stability of the State”, as well as claiming he was involved in plans to exploit Algeria’s anti-government Hirak movement and steer it away from its “peaceful character”.

From exile to ‘political expulsion’

During his years in Spain, Abdellah reported that he suffered regular intimidation and received threats from people he claimed to be Algerian government operatives.

In June 2020, he filed a report with the Spanish police where he denounced being followed and threatened, being told: “You will pay a high price for what you have said. We know you have requested asylum in Spain and we’re going to make sure you don’t get it,” according to the police report seen by Al Jazeera.

On August 3, 2020, he streamed a live video on Facebook broadcasting one such instance of alleged intimidation. The video has more than four million views.

His wife also said she had been followed on numerous occasions, with people showing up at her children’s school, her Spanish lessons, and the entrance to their home. She filed a separate police report in August 2020 asking to be relocated for their protection.

On August 12 this year, while attending an appointment to renew his temporary residency permit, Abdellah was informed his application for political asylum had been denied and he was instead detained and promptly transferred to a foreign internment centre in Barcelona.

The Spanish police’s arrest warrant stated Abdellah posed a “significant risk to national security” and claimed he had been in regular contact and received funding from the prominent Algerian dissident Mohamed Larbi Zitout, one of the figureheads of the anti-government Rachad movement.

On August 21, Abdellah was extradited to Algeria, where he is currently in detention – allegedly kept in solitary confinement in a cell three stories underground. His family said his state-appointed lawyers have stepped back from the case.

“The Algerian state hopes that by using the ‘terrorism’ card it can justify the deportation of Abdellah and other activists from a ‘democratic’ state like Spain, where there should have been concerns over Abdellah’s potential treatment at the hands of the authorities once returned to Algeria,” Yasmina Allouche, an Algerian journalist and political researcher, said.

‘Very unusual’

Activists have also raised concerns about Spain’s handling of Abdellah’s extradition, claiming he was denied the legal protections allowed as a political asylum seeker. Additionally, his legal team argues the case was handled in a dubious manner and influenced by extra-legal interests.

“We believe Abdellah’s case is clearly a political expulsion,” a representative of his Spanish legal team, which was hired by his family, told Al Jazeera.

“Technically, it’s not an extradition but an expulsion, meaning it’s processed via the administrative branch of the law, which doesn’t have the same legal guarantees as the criminal branch,” said the lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous.

The legal team has questioned the Spanish authorities’ interpretation of international refugee law and highlighted the fact that Abdellah was not offered a period of voluntary departure, nor given the opportunity to invoke his right of no return as a political refugee, which his legal representatives described as “very unusual”.

“Abdellah has no criminal record in Spain and the police report is vague and very generic. It’s evident the expulsion is based on what Algeria has said,” his legal representative added.

Al Jazeera contacted both the Algerian and Spanish authorities for comment, but no reply was received.

Algerian authoritarianism

Doubts have also been cast over the validity of the Algerian state’s charges against political activists and members of opposition groups, with Amnesty International labelling them “bogus terrorism charges” employed to limit dissent.

“There is obviously an intention from Algerian authorities to cover up their mismanagement of state affairs. What’s also concerning is that as elections approach we’re entering this environment where any opposition, regardless of how peaceful they may seem, would be considered a disruption to public order,” said Zine Ghebouli, an Algerian political analyst.

The Algerian government has faced strong criticism during the last few years for its response to opposition movements such as Hirak and Rachad. The latter was classed as a terrorist organisation by the government in May this year.

As Hirak’s momentum escalated, so too did the government’s crackdown on protesters. This resulted in the arrest and repression of hundreds of Hirak members and government critics, with the UN’s human rights office condemning the “deteriorating human rights situation … and the continued and increasing crackdown on members of the pro-democracy Hirak movement”.

“Protesters, journalists, activists and ordinary citizens have been arbitrarily arrested and unjustly convicted for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Hassina Oussedik, head of Amnesty in Algeria, told Al Jazeera.

“This year, authorities have used vague interpretations of the penal code and loosely worded terrorism-related charges to prosecute these individuals.”

Questions have also been raised about the government’s decision to classify Rachad as a terrorist group.

“I would not see a particular reason to classify them as a terrorist organisation, but in Algeria, there is a consensus that whoever is associated with the Rachad movement will be arrested, and if they’re abroad they will be extradited,” said Ghebouli.

Division within

However, the Rachad movement has become increasingly divisive among the Algerian opposition.

Concerns have arisen about the group’s links to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) – a former political party that was heavily involved in Algeria’s turbulent Black Decade, which left an estimated 200,000 dead.

“Rachad has been accused of being another version of FIS with possible violent tendencies, which few Algerians have the stomach for after the Black Decade. However, these sentiments are manipulated by the regime to dissuade dissent,” Allouche said.

Nonetheless, Abdellah’s close relationship to the Rachad leadership gave the government the excuse to persecute, extradite and detain him.

“It is a very blurry line at this point. The whole situation is very ambiguous because we don’t have access to the full dossiers of everyone. It’s difficult to make an assessment on whether all those arrested are truly activists or terrorists. However, there are victims of this rhetoric of securitization, and when it comes to activists abroad, the case of Mohamed Abdellah serves as an example. He was close to the Rachad movement, and that’s why he was extradited back to Algeria,” Ghebouli said.

Despite the presence of a strong opposition movement such as Hirak and public dissidents like Abdellah, the outlook remains bleak for those in Algeria speaking out against the government.

“Algerian authorities will only change their behaviour when they want to and have an interest in doing so – and so far they don’t. So at least until the elections, we’re going to see the same behaviour, people who protest will be thrown in jail,” said Ghebouli.

Source: Al Jazeera