ALGIERS - Algeria has intensified a crackdown on an anti-government protest movement, targeting social media users in a bid to stop demonstrations resuming once coronavirus restrictions end.
Weekly protests rocked the North African country for more than a year and only stopped in March due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The "Hirak" protest movement caused the downfall of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019 after 20 years in power. It has continued demanding an overhaul of Algeria's governance system, in place since independence from France in 1962.
Authorities have made about 200 arrests linked to the protests since the country's coronavirus restrictions came into effect three months ago, according to Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
"The authorities have taken advantage of the lull to arrest the maximum number of activists," he said.
Protesters are being pursued for "crimes of opinion and expression connected to posts on social media, particularly Facebook", he said, with some of their homes searched and mobile phones confiscated.
Most of the authorities' actions are based on changes to the penal code that were passed in April amid the health crisis and have been denounced by human rights activists.
'Muzzling the media'
Salhi called the moves "an irresponsible attack, verging on provocation, against fundamental human rights".
On Thursday, more than 20 opposition activists were summoned to appear in seven separate hearings, mostly in trials that had been delayed due to the pandemic.
Those accused include figures in the protest movement, political activists, journalists and people accused of mocking the regime online.
"The government doesn't believe in change, it refuses to listen to the people," lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi was quoted as saying this week in French-language daily Liberte.
"In my opinion, it is making these arrests to break the Hirak," he added.
According to detainees' rights association CNLD, 60 prisoners of conscience are currently jailed.
In a sign the government might be nervous about the public mood, several academics rushed to its defence in official media this week, accusing a "neo-Hirak" of being "in the service of a foreign plan".
But press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on the Algerian authorities to "stop using the justice system to muzzle the media".
"The increase in legal proceedings against Algerian journalists is extremely worrying and indicates a blatant deterioration of press freedom in Algeria," RSF director for North Africa, Souhaieb Khayati, said in a statement.
Four Algerian journalists were prosecuted or sentenced to prison this week.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has also urged Algerian authorities to "stop using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on press freedom".
Some of Algeria's coronavirus lockdown measures have been gradually lifted since June 7.
But gatherings, including the weekly Hirak marches, are still strictly forbidden.
Algeria has officially reported 11,385 cases and 811 deaths from the COVID-19 illness.
Provincial areas have seen sporadic mobilisations in support of detainees in recent weeks, particularly in the northeastern Kabylie region, while streets in Algiers and Oran have remained quiet.
Protesters in Kabylie's two main towns Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou on Friday called for the government to step down, videos shared online showed.
The CNLD reported about 10 arrests were made in Bejaia and several more in Tizi Ouzou.
An anti-government coalition within the Pact for the Democratic Alternative has urged Algerians to "stay mobilised but vigilant in order to engage forcefully in the resumption of peaceful protests" when the health situation allows.
And although there were calls on social media to restart weekly protests on Friday, activists, lawyers, student associations and political parties warned of the health risks.
But instead of crushing the unprecedented, leaderless protest movement, the crackdown could have the opposite effect.
"There is a general feeling of 'hogra'" prevailing among the population, said Salhi, using an Algerian term that refers to injustice and abuse of power.
"Some are already planning to go back to the streets" despite the coronavirus risk, he said.