Algeria is set to investigate the death in custody of prominent human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar, the country’s justice ministry announced Wednesday.
Fekhar, a leading advocate for the Mozabites, a minority Berber community, died on Tuesday while being held in pre-trial detention. The 54-year-old activist had been on hunger strike, according to his family, since his arrest in late March for “undermining state security”.
His lawyer, Salah Dabouz, has accused judicial authorities of being responsible for Fekhar’s death.
Fekhar was held in Ghardaia, 480 kilometres (300 miles) south of the capital Algiers for weeks “in inhumane conditions”, said his lawyer.
A medical doctor by profession, Fekhar died at a hospital in the northern Algerian city of Blida after being transferred there “in a comatose state”, said Dabouz.
In a video posted on his Facebook page, Dabouz denounced “this planned death by the judicial authorities of Ghardaia” who he said detained Fekhar without reason.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Ministry of Justice said it had “instructed the relevant services to carry out an in-depth investigation into the circumstances of the death of Kamel Eddine Fekhar”.
Tensions between Berber and Arab communities
Fekhar was first arrested in 2015 during unrest in the M’zab valley, where Ghardaia is the largest city, between the country’s Berber-speaking Mozabite minority and Chaamba Arabs.
The Berbers were the original inhabitants of North Africa before the 7th Century Arab invasion, and account for about 30% of Algeria’s 41 million people. Tensions over land between the Berber and Arab communities spiraled into clashes in 2015, sparking Fekhar’s arrest.
He was released in July 2017, but re-arrested in March following an interview in which he criticised the Algerian state’s “segregationist” attitudes towards Mozabites in Ghardaia.
Fekhar’s death sparked demonstrations in Algiers, with some protesters carrying placards accusing “le pouvoir” – a term used to refer to the Algerian regime – of assassinating Fekhar.
Mass demonstrations against the “le pouvoir” in Algeria led to the resignation last month of the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. But demonstrations have continued with protesters accusing Bouteflika’s allies of organising elections that were scheduled for July 4, but are likely to be delayed.
Rights groups call for investigation
Fekhar’s death has drawn attention, once again to Algeria’s judicial harassment, sparking condemnations from Algerian and international human rights organisations.
Amnesty International called on Algerian authorities to “immediately review their repressive policies and the shameful treatment of activists and protesters”, adding that the country must allow for freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate peacefully.
Algeria’s League for the Defence of Human Rights and the Front of Socialist Forces, Algeria’s oldest opposition group, had both also demanded justice.
In 2016, a British-Algerian journalist died while serving a two-year jail term for “offending” Algeria’s president. Mohamed Tamalt’s lawyer said he had lapsed into a coma after going on hunger strike.