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Algerian activist Rights lawyer undeterred by Italian house arrest

Rachid Mesli (left) at a press conference in Geneva in 2007


Years of supporting victims of human rights violations in Algeria provoked the ire of the regime and led to my recent house arrest in Italy, claims Algerian rights lawyer Rachid Mesli. But after his release, he tells he remains undeterred in his fight for better human rights. 

Mesli returned to Switzerland last week after a Turin court lifted his house arrest in Aosta, Italy. Mesli, a political refugee who has lived in Switzerland since 2000, was detained on August 19 at the Grand St Bernard tunnel on the Swiss-Italian border while travelling on holiday to Tuscany with his wife and son. His detention was based on a 2002 international arrest warrant issued by Algerian authorities via Interpol.

Last week the Italian judges released him arguing that Mesli risked being persecuted due to his human rights activities if he was sent back to Algeria. What was Interpol’s involvement in your recent detention in Italy?

Rachid Mesli: Article 3 of Interpol's constitution forbids it from undertaking cases of a political or religious nature and public opinion issues.

When it receives requests from countries, Interpol is supposed to investigate and study them carefully. It is true that it has an important role in fighting crime, such as murders or drug trafficking. But this organization should not deviate from its mission and turn into a body that assists despotic regimes to harass political opponents or human rights defenders.

Unfortunately, although Interpol has a committee that looks at complaints against it and is required to make a decision on the complaints within a year, this committee, despite 10 years having passed since I submitted a complaint, has not even replied to my correspondence. You left Algeria 15 years ago but your opponents have not stopped pursuing you. Is the target Rachid Mesli, the political activist and opponent, or Rachid Mesli, the rights activist and legal officer at the Alkarama Foundation?

R.M.: Our human rights activities, in particular those over the past ten years on behalf of the Alkarama Foundation before the United Nations Human Rights Council as well as other international forums, is what worries regimes. It is not just Algeria, but also Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which has placed us on the list of terrorist organizations. 

All these regimes feel deeply embarrassed because of the work of Alkarama Foundation, although our activity is totally legal. We only refer the cases of human rights violations that we receive to the UN bodies to assist the victims. This work is part of an internationally recognized activity. 

The Algerian regime is definitely embarrassed by this. The proof is that my arrest warrant was issued when I started work at the level of the UN Human Rights Committee when I arrived in Switzerland, specifically on the cases of people who had been forcibly abducted and jailed in secret locations in Algeria. On this issue, I dealt with various UN experts. This is why they are pursuing me. What message would you like to send to your opponents? 

R.M.: It would be an exaggeration to say that we have an authority in Algeria that we can send a message to. It is just a group involved in an internal war which has shared interests. Twenty 20 years on, they still have not understood the lesson. In fact, there has to be a radical change, because the regime in Algeria cannot reform itself on its own. As a rights activist, what are the lessons learned from your experiences at the Swiss-Italian border on August 19, 2015? 

R.M.: We will continue to move ahead with our work whatever price we have to pay. We are aware that we will be constantly targeted, but that will not change our position, nor will it affect our activity in supporting the victims and calling for radical change in the human rights situations in the Arab region. There no question of going back on this. 

Rachid Mesli is the legal director of Alkarama Foundationexternal link, a non-governmental group that focuses on human rights issues in Arab countries. He used to be part of a legal team defending the Islamic Salvation Front, a banned group, in the 1990s.

Algeria has accused Mesli of providing "telephone information on a terrorist groups movement," and attempting to "supply terrorist groups with cameras and phones."

In a statement on his arrest, Alkarama said the Algerian authorities were "twisiting his [Mesli’s] work as a human rights lawyer in constant contact with victims of rights abuses and their families."

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