The Algerian activist who may face the death sentence after being deported by Spain

Mohamed Benhalima warned that he risked being tortured if he was returned to his home country. Despite this, he was sent back after Algiers withdrew its ambassador in response to Spain’s U-turn on Western Sahara

Mohamed Benhalima
Mohamed Benhalima, a former Algerian officer.

A former Algerian serviceman called Mohamed Benhalima was handed over by the Spanish government to the Algerian authorities on March 24. This happened just five days after Algeria withdrew its ambassador in Madrid in protest against Spain’s decision to support Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, which brought to an end its decades-long policy of neutrality on this longstanding territorial dispute. For Spain, Benhalima was just an illegal immigrant. But for Algeria, the 32-year-old was a highly vocal dissident who they wanted back on home ground. But if the Spanish Interior Ministry’s goal in returning the 32-year-old was to mend relations with Algeria, it has not worked. Two months later, Algeria still does not have an ambassador in Spain. But Benhalima’s life, as he warned before he was deported, has been destroyed. He is doomed to spend decades in prison, or even the rest of his life.

The former military officer arrived in Spain on a visa in September 2019. He fled to Spain, fearful of ending up in prison in Algeria for taking part in pro-democracy protests months earlier. The Hirak Movement, the name given to the 2019-2021 mass protests, had no visible leader, but the regime sent hundreds of activists to jail until the movement was crushed. From exile, Benhalima became popular on social networks, where he denounced the corrupt practices of the senior members of the Algerian army.

Benhalima requested asylum in Spain, but Spain – which was the first country in the West to show its support for the Algerian regime when the protests broke out – refused his request. The Spanish authorities made this decision on the grounds that he posed “a danger to national security” and could “harm Spain’s relations with other countries.” But the alleged “well-founded” reasons upon which it reached this conclusion have never been explained.

Benhalima then sought protection in France, but this request was also denied: under European Union rules, the first country that has recorded the asylum request is in charge of the process. Afraid that France would return him to Algeria, he tried again in Portugal, also in vain. He tried to return to France. But during the journey, when he was in Spain, Benhalima was stopped at a police checkpoint in Zaragoza, in the northeastern Aragon region. As he was in an irregular situation, the police requested that he be detained in an Immigrant Detention Center (CIE) and a judge accepted this request.

The ex-serviceman ended at a CIE in Valencia in southeastern Spain. From there, he requested asylum again, but this time it was not even admitted for processing, even though the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it should be studied. A day before he was deported, Benhalima recorded a video warning that he could be tortured in his country. “Algeria is a country of military dictators and they do not accept opinions other than their own, I want to ask [Spanish Interior Minister] Mr. Marlaska and [Spanish Prime Minister] Pedro Sanchez to review their decision and save my life. My life is at risk,” he warned.

His pleas for help, and those of several humanitarian organizations, were to no avail. At 7.45pm on Thursday, March 24, as reported by the police to the Ombudsman, the plane chartered by the Spanish authorities to transport the activist, along with half a dozen irregular immigrants, took off from Valencia. Benhalima arrived handcuffed an hour later at the Algerian airport of Chelf, where Algerian guards put him in a black straitjacket.

Benhalima is accused of belonging to the Islamist group Rachad, which claims to be peaceful and opposed to the “theocratic” state. But in May 2021, Algerian authorities classified it as a terrorist group.

Only three days after his arrest in Algeria, the country’s General Directorate of National Security released a video in which the ex-army corporal is heard asking the country’s president, Abdelmayid Teboun, for forgiveness. In the video, he admits to “having damaged the reputation of several people.” Sources familiar with the case told EL PAÍS that Benhalima revealed during an interrogation the names of 24 policemen and members of the army who were allegedly his informants.

Before being deported to Algeria, Benhalima warned in a video that if he appears to confess it is because he was “subjected to torture.”

Benhalima appeared before the Bir Mourad Raïs court in Algiers on May 9. He has been accused of spreading false information that threatened the security of the country and the integrity of the territory, and faces up to 10 years in prison.

But humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claim that the activist has been sentenced to death by a military court. In Algeria, there has been a moratorium on capital punishment since 1993, and such sentences have not been applied for 30 years. Often, capital punishment is converted into life imprisonment. However, no organization has had direct access to Benhalima’s sentence and Spanish government sources claim that Algerian authorities have categorically denied this.

“Things happened to me at the police station”

During the court session, Abdelkadir Chohra, one of his lawyers, indicated that Benhalima had been transferred to a prison in Saoula, a neighborhood of Algiers. The defendant took the floor and stated: “The state has destroyed a life. Things have happened to me in the Saoula police station. I am not going to say what now. That will happen in due course.” These statements can be interpreted as a veiled reference to torture.

The Spanish Interior Ministry maintains that Benhalima’s deportation followed the usual procedure with all the proper guarantees. But this was not the protocol for deporting immigrants in an irregular situation. Once Benhalima was locked up in the Valencia CIE, authorities rushed to send him back to Algeria. His lawyers did not have time to appeal his expulsion. According to Jaume Durá, a lawyer for the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR), he was notified of Benhalima’s deportation at 5.38pm and less than two hours later he was already on the plane. By the time a judge had resolved all the precautionary measures filed to stop the process, Benhalima had been in Algeria for days.

What’s more, Algerian immigrants in an irregular situation are normally sent back by ferry, which can carry a larger number of people. Chartering a plane to expel a handful of people – as happened in Benhalima’s case – is highly unusual.

This is not the first time Spain has tried to please Algeria by returning dissidents. In August 2021, the activist Mohamed Abdellah, a friend of Benhalima’s and former member of Algeria’s Gendarmerie, who became popular on social media for his criticism of corruption within the Gendarmerie, was also handed over. After arriving in Algeria, Abdellah revealed that he had been tortured.

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