On 11th February 2019, a young university student named Assil Belata was murdered in his university halls in Algiers, the capital of Algeria. In what was a suspected homophobic hate crime, the reaction to Assil’s death, sexuality and the nature of the crime by both the Algerian authorities and wider society brought to light once again just how difficult life is for the LGBT+ community in Algeria.
At present, “homosexual acts” are illegal in Algeria, in accordance with local socio-cultural norms based on religious interpretations and traditional perceptions of sexuality. According to Article 338 of the Penal Code:
Whoever is guilty of a homosexual act will be punished with imprisonment from two months to two years and a fine from 500 to 2000 DA [around £3 to £13].
[The law further stipulates in regards to child protection: “If one of the persons is a minor under 18 years old, the sentence for the adult person may be raised to three years of imprisonment and a fine of 10000 DA” [around £63].
Whilst of course, recognising the clear need of safeguarding measures and protection for minors, for adult consensual same-sex activity, the Algerian Penal Code is problematic. Such legal obstacles for adult citizens in same-sex relationships, along with social, cultural and religious norms in Algeria, explicitly forbid and stigmatise same-sex relations and transgender identity. Such stigma is in fact matched with discrimination and abuse of LGBT+ citizens – which is encouraged in every area of society, even at the very top where politicians remain vocal in their support against LGBT+ rights.
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia for example, when asked during a visit to Germany in 2018 about LGBT+ rights in Algeria stated that:
Algeria is a society that has its traditions, we are not caught in a universal trend of evolution… We intend to keep moving forward on the basis of our values.
The stance of the government and current socio-cultural norms in Algerian society mean that life is significantly challenging for the LGBT+ community in Algeria. In light of this tragic event and the ongoing oppression of LGBT+ Algerians, I reached out to Association Alouen – an LGBT+ support organisation based in Algeria to find out what’s really happening on the ground and if change lies ahead or if things are going to get worse for Assil’s compatriots. This is what I discovered.
VoS: Thank you for joining us for this interview on the rights of the LGBTQI+ community in Algeria. For readers unfamiliar with your organisation and the area, could you tell us a little about your organisation and the work you’re involved in?
A: We’re a non-profit organisation based in Algeria run by volunteers. We campaign for the rights of LGBT+ Algerians and fight against homophobia and transphobia. We all work together in the hope of improving our situation in Algeria. “Alouen” is Arabic and translates as “colours” reflecting the rainbow – the symbol of the LGBT community. This also represents diversity.
Our organisation was founded on 10th October 2011 during the celebrations of TenTen (10/10) – the national celebration in support of LGBT Algerians.
Our aims are to:
- Fight against all forms of LGBT-based discrimination
- Fight against all forms of violence aimed at LGBT communities
- Encourage acceptance and integration of the LGBT community into Algerian society
- Help the battle against AIDS and STDs in specific regard to the LGBT community
VoS: What difficulties do you encounter carrying out such work in Algeria? Are there any risks to your personal safety or towards your family?
A: The biggest problem we face is that we operate illegally. Here in Algeria, homosexuality is criminalised – as stipulated in the Penal Code. As a result, our lives and the lives of our families are at risk. This means that we have to take extra care in our work to stay safe.
VoS: On 11th February, the body of young university student Assil Belata was found in his university room in Algiers. British and global news sources reported the crime as a homophobic hate crime related to Asil’s sexuality. However, when looking at Algerian news sources, they didn’t always report this aspect of the story. Can you confirm the cause of his death?
A: What happened is that the local authorities tried to conceal certain elements of the crime, including the homophobic message left on the wall of Assil’s bedroom – the words “he is gay” were in fact written in Arabic on the wall [in his own blood]. Here at Alouen, we’ve been trying to raise awareness of this and get the message out there – especially by condemning the homophobic remarks made by the Algerian Prime Minister and the President of the Magistrate’s Union in Algeria, which were made several weeks before the crime took place.
Now the authorities are trying to discredit the claim that Assil’s death was the result of a homophobic hate crime by claiming that the murderer was gay himself, saying that he wanted to rape his victim. This was a particularly pertinent statement, given that male rape (as a form of homophobic attack) is not condemned in Algeria because in Middle Eastern and North-African culture, the man penetrating the other man is not considered gay – unlike the other man during the sexual act.
Regardless of Assil’s sexual orientation (we can’t speak on his behalf), the crime remains an act of homophobic violence because the perpetrator himself declared he hated homosexuals – this is regardless of whether the victim was gay or not.
Assassinat de Assil dans sa chambre à Alger: Sit-in des étudiants à la faculté de médecine https://t.co/lZluZInM76
— HuffPost Algérie (@HuffPostAlgerie) February 11, 2019
VoS: Who was Assil Belata? What can you tell us about his life and recent events?
A: Assil was a 21-year-old university student in his third year of studying Medicine. He was Algerian and was originally from the region of Bordj Bou Arreridj [situated in northern Algeria, approximately 200km from Algiers]. He lived in the Taleb-Abderrahmane-2 university halls at Ben Aknoun in the suburbs of Algiers. He was a good student and decent guy – he didn’t get into any trouble with anyone.
VoS: What’s going on in Algeria at the moment? Has his death been condemned by Algerian society and by the Algerian authorities themselves? Have people condemned his murder, knowing and accepting his true sexuality? If not, why is this?
A: After Assil died, many people expressed their outrage on social media and on university campuses – both where Assil studied and further afield. However, as soon as information on the motive behind the crime started to circulate, we started to feel that people were walking into denial.
We started to receive messages denying his university registration and we were accused of wanting to “dirty” the image of Assil (although we never said that Assil was gay – a fact which doesn’t change the fact that the crime was homophobic in nature – and in any case, being gay is not “dirty”).
However, after the photos of the writing on the wall of Assil’s bedroom were published, these same people started to “reinterpret” the inscription which was in fact grammatically spelt wrong. Instead of finding the words “He is gay“, what was actually written was: “his gay“. So, they instead went on to claim that the writing points to the message of him having a lover (“his gay”). Then was then changed to the suggestion of “his day” with a “d” incorrectly written with a “g” [Editor’s note: in Arabic to denote “is/am/are” – the use of the pronoun “he” and noun (without a verb) (e.g. He gay) – is sufficient grammatically and is common standard practice linguistically].
After the accused was arrested, everyone jumped to the conclusion that Assil’s murderer was gay and that he wanted to rape Assil. Again, Assil’s sexual orientation was not discussed. The murderer met Assil on Facebook who was using a second (unofficial) account he created to meet people online.
What happened to Assil is a common practice for homophobes, who try to trap homosexuals through social networks and apps claiming to want to meet them. They do go on to meet them and then attack, rape and rob them. This is all because homophobes feel that what they’re doing to members of the LGBT is [socially and morally] acceptable.
VoS: Could you explain to Voice of Salam readers what daily life is like for queer men and women living in Algeria? What obstacles and difficulties do the LGBTQI+ community face?
A: Unfortunately, the LGBT community in Algeria live in constant fear. Most of those who do come out/don’t hide their identity, are often insulted in the street and subjected to attacks, mugged and even raped or murdered.
Assil’s story is not unique. Here at Alouen, we’ve received tens of witness accounts and messages on our page and former website. This behaviour doesn’t just manifest itself on the street either. Many queer Algerians are subjected to homophobic abuse from their own families too. This social and family-based homophobia is also supported by institutional and media-based homophobia as well.
When a TV channel is looking to boost its ratings, they’ll hire an actor to play the role of an effeminate queer man or sex worker, to run a report, to demean homosexuals. The same homophobia manifests itself when an Algerian minister says that “the battle against secularists and homosexuals is more important than the battle against Daesh (Isis)”, when a federation of judges announces that “we shouldn’t be talking about corruption amongst judges” but also says that we should be “striving to condemn homosexuals”.
It’s not uncommon for members of the LGBT community here to face daily attacks and an increasing immunity for the abusers because the victims are scared of having to reveal their sexuality to press charges or because quite simply the authorities reject his complaint/report.
VoS: How do you (try to) overcome these obstacles?
Since the first LGBT campaigning group “Abu Nawas” was formed in 2006, we’ve been working to mobilise the community to support our cause. Only by building this sense of solidarity can we become stronger and unify in the fight against homophobia, towards equality amongst all Algerians – as our constitution states – regardless of one’s sexuality.
The second stage of our work was to gain media attention surrounding our cause – above all to prove that we exist because, for the last ten years, the Algerian authorities have been saying to international bodies that there are no LGBT citizens in Algeria.
We’re now focussing on advocacy and lobbying work with our network of allies to get our voice heard and raise crucial awareness.
VoS: Algerian law currently criminalises “homosexual acts”, do you think that the law will change in the future?
A: Change is already happening – it’s just a matter of time. We know that it may not happen in our lifetime but we’re working to help make this a reality for the next generations.
We need to see changes made both legally through by abolishing the current discriminatory laws, but also socially through changes in people’s mentalities towards the LGBT community. Change needs to happen – the Algerian LGBT community can’t take it any longer! A lot of young queer Algerians commit suicide because their daily lives become a living hell. To these young men and women, nothing seems worse than what they’re going through. They simply want the hell they’re going through to stop. We don’t have a choice.
VoS: For those who are campaigning against the prejudice faced by the LGBTQI+ community, what are the risks?
A: A man or woman who identifies as LGBT has no legal protection in Algeria. So as you can imagine, it’s very risky – anything can happen. As we’ve already talked about, this starts with something such as a disapproving look by someone in the street, taunting/jeering or being insulted or even murdered.
The concern is that neither the law nor the public institutions – and sometimes even your nearest and dearest – will lift a finger to protect you.
What’s worse is that many queer Algerians have insisted on reporting the abuse they’ve faced to the authorities – including attacks, muggings and rape – but have ended up facing a charge themselves. They’ve found themselves accused of “debauchery” and charged with indecent assault.
VoS: So how can we help your cause and support the LGBTQI+ community in Algeria and across North Africa?
A: For the moment, being our allies and supporting our work when we need support is of great help.
Sadly Alouen can only work with local allies and partners otherwise we risk being accused of being “puppets” manipulated by foreign bodies or accused of wanting to impose “Western” values onto Algerian society. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t ask for your help or collaboration on certain issues.
Of course! Here at Voice of Salam, we’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to Voice of Salam and wish you the very best with your work in the future!
Translation (FR > ENG): Elizabeth Arif-Fear