Algerian authorities have been deploying large numbers of police and arresting protesters to prevent demonstrations in the capital ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, Human Rights Watch said Monday, adding that officials recently targeted a movement opposed to a fourth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The 77-year-old president will be running after 15 years in power, despite having a stroke last year that has made his speech and movement difficult. While six candidates have been approved for the April 17 elections, Bouteflika is expected to win with the backing of the powerful machinery of the state.
The New York-based rights group on Monday called for Algerian authorities to rescind the 2001 decree banning all demonstrations in Algiers, the capital, and create an atmosphere of debate and competitive elections — including the right to peaceful assembly.
"The open-ended, blanket ban on demonstrations in the capital has been in effect almost as long as Bouteflika has been president," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
HRW said that security personnel in Algiers have used force three times this month to disperse supporters of the Barakat (Enough) movement, as they expressed their opposition to a new mandate for Bouteflika.
"On March 1, 4, and 6, security forces tried to block access to the protest site. Security forces confronted protesters who managed to reach the site and started to wave banners and chant slogans," HRW said in a statement. "Is it any surprise that these latest victims of the crackdown on protest are those who peacefully oppose his election to a fourth five-year term?"
On Saturday, supporters and opponents of Bouteflika's decision to seek a fourth term staged rival demonstrations in Algiers. Around 3,000 supporters of the president gathered in the capital for what they called "a national meeting to sensitize young people to voting."
His supporters screened a documentary about Bouteflika's 15 years in power, and his former prime minister and election campaign manager Abdelmalek Sellal gave a speech.
On the other side of the city, hundreds of opponents of Bouteflika's re-election bid held peaceful marches. Three different opposition marches took place, with the largest organized by the Barakat movement, which was formed specifically to oppose Bouteflika seeking another term.
Despite Barakat's small numbers and the heavy opposition it faces from the powerful state, local analysts are describing it as an important development.
"It is an alternative to the classic political parties that have failed and it makes us think of the youth behind the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt,'' said Rachid Tlemcani, a political analyst at University of Algiers, adding that the movement's rough treatment by authorities showed the system's insecurity.
The administration "is afraid that this movement could be a catalyst for a wider conflagration because all the ingredients for an explosion are there," he said.
Algeria was barely affected by a wave of pro-democracy protests that swept the Arab world in 2011, in part, many say, because of a brutal decade-long civil war in the 1990s that left 200,000 dead.
Some analysts say Algerians were still too traumatized by that violence to be ready for another, radical social change — not that there weren't problems with the country's political system. Also, the very nature of authoritarian rule left little opportunity for any kind of viable opposition movement to form.
Al Jazeera and wire services