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Algeria: Repression of the Barakat Movement

Sunday 9 March 2014, by siawi3

Repression of the Barakat Movement: the testimony of Mustapha Benfodil

Source: siawi, March 8, 2014

The French original is available at: http://www.elwatan.com/actualite/re...

Translated from French by Friends of Barakat. Editorial footnotes were added by the translator.

by Mustapha Benfodil
March 7, 2014

Founding member of the Barakat Movement, which is opposed to a 4th Term for Algerian President Bouteflika, Mustapha Benfodil, a writer and journalist for the newspaper El Watan, gives his testimony of the March 6th demonstration in Algiers, and of hours spent in a police station.

Thursday March 6. 11 AM exactly. I head alone toward main campus [of the University of Algiers]. An hour earlier, I had received a phone call from a trusted activist telling me the police have received the order to systematically arrest all those they deem “leaders” of Barakat. The night before, we had agreed not to arrive at the same time at the location of the sit in. The impressive deployment of the security forces all along Didouche Mourad Street, and especially near main campus confirmed for me the need for this decision. I did my best to pass the human barricades made up of policemen without being picked up.

A Children’s Drawing Torn Up by a Cop

When I had only just arrived at the level of the Brasserie des Facultés [a restaurant near the University], a brouhaha ensued. The voice of Mehdi Bsikri, an active member of the movement, could be heard crying, “Long live Algeria!” (Tahia El Djazaïr!) He was being dragged away by force by the unleashed swarm of men in uniforms. They threw him into a police van. I took out my phone and called Samir, another “leader” of the movement, with the goal of re-organizing ourselves. The line was bad. I looked away from the spectacle of Mehdi’s arrest so as not to lose my nerve and continued on my way.

Instructions: do not ever lose your sang-froid. Stay calm. Gather the other activists for a second wave. I walked slowly in the direction of Audin Square. Along my way, I pass kind faces that make me smile again. Arezki Aït Larbi, Lazhari Labter, Kiki, Professor Nacer Djabi, and also the admirable (and incorrigible) Hadda Hazam. Friends ask me for news of Louisette Ighilahriz.1 I had the honor of talking to her by telephone on Wednesday night, and she assured me that if she felt strong enough, she too would take to the streets. A very great lady!

Even QASSAMAN cannot do anything about this

I try to join Amira Bouraoui. She tells me she was arrested at the same time as the other leaders of the movement. I understand then that I can do nothing else but rejoin the others, and create more work for the police. I had a plan. We spread the word to sing Qassaman (“We Pledge”).2 I had also resolved to carry a drawing made by my daughter Leila instead of the usual protest sign, so as to inject a little imagination into our lexicon. It was a way to serve notice to the Bouteflikas, Toufik and company: “Stop playing with the future of our children.” But neither Qassaman, nor my daughter’s funny little drawing would protect me from the savagery of the police.

On reaching the main campus area, I raised my drawing, singing the national anthem. This did not elicit the slightest frisson from our very nationalist men with batons. A group of strapping lads in blue threw themselves on me, showering me with abuse. Violently, they ripped my daughter’s drawing out of my hands, as though it were a pamphlet calling for civil disobedience. I must admit that this hurt me more than anything else. Luckily, I had taken the precaution of scanning it before heading out. I was then dragged by force toward a police van. I did not resist. I wanted to save my strength. I was alone in the van.

Subduing Us

Two or three minutes later, they brought in H, a gym teacher living in Aïn Benian. The man, who was of a good size, protected himself as best as he could. The poor guy was just passing by. It was only when he saw the cops mistreating me as they did that he joined the demonstration. A simple question of honor. He was a brave man, as are so many, and I want to pay tribute to him. He found himself in the paddy wagon. As he refused to obey, a policeman in civilian clothes who had a muscular body and used filthy language, threw himself on the man with animal cruelty and beat him, almost hysterically. The blows were accompanied by shouts, as he called us names in a menacing voice and swore by all his Gods to subdue us. He smashed the man’s sunglasses into a thousand pieces.

I tried to intervene, to say that he did not have the right to brutalize the man like that. As a result, he flew off the handle and punched me in the face. The maniac became visibly afraid when I said, “Rayeh n’bassik” [I’m going to report you.] Four other demonstrators arrived in the paddy wagon. Mostly students. I didn’t know a single one of them, but I came to know them. And this is the strength of this movement. Last Saturday, it was in a paddy wagon where I first got to know Hafnaoui Ghoul, Samir Benlarbi, Maitre Badi Abdelghani and the playwright Mohamed Charchal, and now we are always together, like old friends.

A cold and humid basement

The police van headed for El Biar. Through the little barred window of the driver’s compartment, I heard the crackling of a walkie-talkie. A deep voice ordered the officer seated in front to treat the arrested demonstrators with respect. This proves that the disproportionate violence deployed by the troops of General El-Hamel upset the higher ups, especially in light of the impressive number of cameras present on Didouche Street, and the viral impact of any image documenting the repression.

At about noon, they delivered us to the El Biar Police Station (Bougara Boulevard area).

Just like last time, they confiscated our identity papers and cellphones. A striking image: the dripping walls of the commissariat, peeling from the humidity. We were taken to a cold basement. On the right there were offices. On the left, a block of three cells with toilets. The cells were out of order. We were asked to appear one by one in front of an officer who patiently filled out forms. I immediately asked if I could make a complaint against his colleague. He replied that this was not within his remit. He conscientiously filled out my papers: father’s name, mother’s name, address, profession… And then a question that took me aback. “Do you drink?” No comment… Next we were invited to gather in the cellblock with its prison bars and metal door, except that it was left open.

We spent more than three hours cooped up in this shabby space, without anywhere to sit except the bare floor, and with a plastic sheet serving as the roof. The toilets polluted the atmosphere with their stench. Of the three cells, two served as storerooms. At one point the police chief came to check the “merchandise”. He was sneering in the beginning. “Really, you are going to change the system?,” he asked sarcastically. But by the end he was warmer, almost showing solidarity with us. The officers were very courteous, even displaying signs of support for us. “I am in the service of democracy,” one of them dared to say. We were kept in police custody (including our time en route) from 11:30 AM to 3:50 PM. Without food.

During our time in jail, two other groups of three people each were brought in. Among them, a young student in civil engineering at the Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology who was just passing by. The others were demonstrators of all stripes. Among the twelve “bastards”, I was the only journalist. This proves that this groundswell is far from being a journalists’ thing as a certain pro-system propaganda would have you believe. There were four students among us, including two from Bejaia who were finishing their degrees at Bab Ezzouar (hydraulic engineering) and another who came all the way from Blida (environmental sciences).

A is a former employee of Sonatrach 3, a delightful young man from Ouled Fayet. He tells me that what made him decide to take to the streets was the televised presentation of our friend Mehdi on Echourouk TV. I must also mention Yacine, a spirited and cheerful psychiatrist with a beret on his head. And then there was the delightful Bouzid, a marketing expert who came all the way from Tizi Ouzou. A real little genius this one, as mischievous as possible and full of humor. “700 billion dollars and look at this piece of work: rotting walls. One hour in here and you will become asthmatic,” he said, teasing the police chief.

Meeting in the middle of a police station

I cannot fail to mention the bearded man of 60, a hotheaded Islamist and son of the Casbah, who tells us how even as a kid, he mingled with the Revolution. Cheeky and very politicized, this man is an activist with the National Coordination for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC). He is outraged that they arrest “honest people while the supporters of Bouteflika march around as they like without being harassed.”

Haranguing the police, he shouts, “We want to free you also. Even the colonial police took pity on women and children. Why don’t you unionize? We will help you recover your dignity. Revolt !” He speaks a tempered discourse about the “ilmaniyine” (secularists) and firmly believes that it is only in overcoming the divisions “brought about by the government” that we can change the power balance and get rid of the regime. “There is a fracture in the system. The DRS 4 is coming apart. We must take advantage of this unique moment,” he insists.

Most of the time, we remain standing. The assembly is simmering. We have a decidedly political conversation, under the auspices of the police. In some ways, this is the silver lining. These days the branches of General Hamel put their premises at the disposition of dissidents of all stripes. Subliminal democracy? The young inexperienced activists are excited. Transcendent. This experience transforms them. Friendships are born. Links are woven in the heat of arrests. A wind of freedom blows on the cottages. We savor it with full lungs.

3 PM and a bit. We are taken out at last and accompanied to a clinic next door for the ritual medical check before release. Having inquired about the purpose of our arrests, a citizen becomes enraged with the policeman. “The people are ready for anything. We are already dead. I earn 17,000 dinars per month [about $220 US]. I live in a hovel. Is this a life? We will all take to the streets!” The entire waiting room applauds.

My name is Hassiba Benbouali

As soon as we get our phones back, we hurry to get news of our friends. I learn from one activist that a policewoman who is six months pregnant was among those mobilized to repress the demonstration, to the great displeasure of the poor woman. Bouzid shares with me the testimony of another activist who took the Algiers subway to get to the demonstration and who was prohibited, along with her fellow passengers, from going out through the subway’s entrance. “Either you wait, or you turn around and retrace your steps,” an officer ordered.

The best story is that of Maitre Badi Abdelghani, a lawyer and human rights activist who was arrested and taken along with fifteen other citizens, including Amira Bouraoui, to the 14th district police station in Hussein Dey. “At the beginning, we refused to give them our phones and identity cards,” the lawyer recounts. Then he adds: “When the police asked for our first and last names, Amira had the ingenious idea of replying: ‘Hassiba Benbouali!’”5 The others followed her lead. “I am Souidani Boudjemaa.”6 “I’m Amirouch.”7 “I am Larbi Ben M’hidi.”8 You will have understood: even if the body is battered, the spirits are very high. Qassaman.

Mustapha Benfodil

March 7, 2014

NOTES:

1.Louisette Ighilahriz is a highly respected veteran of Algeria’s anti-colonial movement. She was captured and tortured by French military commanders during the war of independence.

2. Algeria’s national anthem whose title means “We Pledge.” The lyrics include the following line: “We swear… that we have risen to revolution in life or death and we have resolved that Algeria shall live…”

3. Sonatrach is Algeria’s state-owned petro-chemical company.

4. The DRS, or Department of Information and Security, is Algeria’s state intelligence service.

5. Hassiba ben Bouali was an Algerian nationalist and martyr of the war of independence. She was killed by French forces in 1957, an event that was depicted in the film, “The Battle of Algiers.”

6. Souidani Boudjemaa was another anti-colonial activist, and was one of those who chose the launch date of the Algerian revolution. He died in 1956 at the hands of French forces, and was only 34.

7. Killed in combat in 1959 by French troops, Colonel Amirouch was a prominent military commander in the independence movement.

8. One of the nine principal leaders of the Algerian anti-colonial movement, the greatly respected Larbi Ben M’hidi was tortured and extra-judicially executed in French custody in 1957.