By Raouf Farrah and Hamza Hamouchene, The New Arab, 27 June, 2022
LONDON - “Why do you worry about Adrar? I know for a fact that the more it moves away from Le Pouvoir [state power], the closer it moves to the homeland”.
These are the last words Mohad Gasmi - a tireless environmentalist and human rights activist from Adrar in southern Algeria – left us on social media before his arrest in 2020 over his involvement in the hirak.
As a worker, Gasmi reflected on the world and questioned the underdevelopment of his surrounding environment, which was at odds with its richness in natural resources. These early experiences propelled him to fight against the injustices he witnessed.
He spent much of the 2000s meeting with others, organising and building political movements. During this process he quickly learned that the protection of natural resources and the broader fight for dignity and freedom, were connected struggles.
“The matrix behind all this mess is one and the same, the same i’ssaba (gang)”, he liked to repeat to young people in his hometown.
The political consciousness he espoused, he had also passed on to his wife and children. Alas, the last of his children who was four years old when he was arrested, was too young to get to know his father and the struggle for social justice that he waged.
In fact, Gasmi has been unable to see any of his children grow up because he has been in arbitrary detention for over two years after being twice prosecuted.
He was condemned to five years in prison for supposedly “advocating terrorism” in a Facebook post dating back to 2018 in which he blamed the Algerian authorities for the radicalisation of Abdesslem Termoune, head of the Movement of the Sons of the Sahara for Justice who was killed in Libya that year.
He was also additionally sentenced to three years on criminal charges after being accused of ‘sharing confidential information’ without the intent of treason and espionage.
His sentence was reduced to three years, of which one year would be under probation, following an appeal hearing earlier this month.
However, everyone is well aware that his political activism is the source of this state-led repression.
Social and economic rights
In 2011, amidst the Arab uprisings, young people from the Sahara founded the National Representative Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC), a movement that calls for an equitable redistribution of wealth, job creation, and socioeconomic rights. Gasmi was part of this movement.
Two years later, the CNDDC organised a huge protest in Ouargla, where thousands of protesters gathered including the working class youth they had mobilised.
“It was an immense success, and everyone had contributed to it, especially Mohad. We were very proud of having maintained nonviolence throughout the rally, which is one of the tenets Mohad has always ascribed to”, recounted one of the leaders of the CNDDC, Ibek Abdelmalek.
The Algerian authorities went on to repress the massive actions through arrests, prosecutions, harassment of activist cadres, and banning the right to protest.
The government even dubbed them a ‘gang of separatists and terrorists’ – an accusation that they would later level against the hirak activists in 2019.
Gasmi, with the young groups and activists involved in the movement were conscious of the growing greed of multinational companies like Total and Halliburton when it came to shale gas. It’s no surprise given the region contains the third largest recoverable shale gas reserves in the world, as confirmed by the US governmental agency, the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In 2014, the Algerian government announced the success of the first pilot drilling operation for shale gas in In Salah. Immediately after, thousands of people non-violently protested against the project. Sahat el Soumoud (The Square of Resilience) brimmed with people, and the roads leading to the centre were blocked. This was the first time in independent Algeria’s history that a city in the South experienced such a large-scale mobilisation.
Gasmi understood and organised through both an ‘anti-system’ and anti-colonial lens. France’s colonial legacy and the military regime were the problem, and were complicit in the environmental and socioeconomic crises developing around them. He understood that class struggle, destructive neoliberalism, and the role corrupt elites play within the scheme of transnational exploitation are all intertwined.
What also made such activity worth noting is that through Gasmi’s involvement, the movement centred the protection of local traditions and natural resources. He subsequently became a crucial figure in the fight against shale gas exploitation.
It was not long before he became internationally recognised for his efforts. This took him to Tunisia in 2015 where he attended the World Social Forum (WSF) and brilliantly defended the struggle of the first anti-shale gas movement in the Maghreb. He also travelled to Morocco in 2016 to participate in events around the COP22, where he advocated for a holistic approach to an ecological transition that would protect resources, defend social justice, and promote democracy.
A staunch pro-democracy activist
When the hirak demonstrations first erupted across Algeria in February 2020, Gasmi took part in every protest he could. He would also regularly hold a people’s agora in order to encourage debate and discussion around the South’s place within the democratic transition that was being fought for.
The authorities feared his leading role in the hirak in the Sahara, which is why he was arrested once the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the regime capitalised on the event.
He has already spent two years in cruel detention, and requests for a probationary release that his attorneys submitted have all been rejected.
On July 5 2021, the anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, Gasmi went on a hunger strike to protest his preventive detention and the accusations held against him. In October that same year, the Adrar Court of Justice sentenced him to five years in prison for the first case, before recently reducing his judgement.
The second appeal hearing has been set for June 30, the hope is that this will lead to his early release.
Amnesty International, along with other human rights organisations, have launched a petition calling for his release. Gasmi, however, has yet to receive any form of pardon - a “gesture” sometimes made by the president’s office towards political prisoners.
It is now vital that international and local pressure is mounted in order to force state institutions to deliver his freedom. We must use every platform we have to oppose this continued unjust treatment and we must not stop until Mohad Gasmi is free!
Raouf Farrah is a geopolitical researcher specialising in North Africa and the Sahel and co-founder of Twala, an Algerian independent Media.
Hamza Hamouchene is a researcher and activist. He is currently the North African programme coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI).
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.