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‘They follow us everywhere’: Canadian citizens accuse Algeria of spying, intimidation at home

Members of Algeria's Kabyle minority living in Canada say they're living in fear, and are asking the Trudeau government to intervene and protect them from further intimidation.

Members of Algeria's Kabyle minority say they're living in fear, ask Trudeau government to intervene

A man in black holds a guitar and looks at the camera.

Kamal Sehaki thought he could finally live freely when he moved to Canada in 2018.

The Gatineau, Que., resident never guessed that his Kabyle origins would catch up to him, making him a target of the Algerian authorities on Canadian soil.

The Kabyles are part of the larger Amazigh or Berber family of Indigenous North Africans. They have their own language and culture, and some advocate for the creation of an independent state in a mountainous coastal region of northern Algeria.

Sehaki, a 36-year-old artist, learned the hard way that anyone associated with this independence movement risks reprisal from the Algerian government.

There is a climate of fear in the community.

– Kamel Serbouh, Centre Aqvayli de Montréal

It all started with an unusual offer.

"I received a call recently from a member of the Algerian consulate in Montreal," he said.

Sehaki, winner of international awards for his short films, said the man suggested the Algerian government could help boost Sehaki's career and offered him an appointment at the consulate.

Suspicious, the artist agreed to meet, but only in a public place.

They met last month in a Montreal restaurant, where two of Sehaki's friends sat discreetly a few tables away and took a photo.

Radio-Canada was unable to confirm that the man in the photo works for the Algerian consulate in Montreal, but other members of the Kabyle community in Canada told Radio-Canada about being summoned to the Algerian Consulate and Embassy in Ottawa.

The Algerian Embassy did not respond to our requests for an interview, and did not provide a written response to the allegations raised by members of the Kabyle community.

According to Sehaki, his art was not the focus of the meeting in Montreal.

Instead, the conversation revolved around his links to the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK). The MAK's Canadian chapter has organized demonstrations in Montreal and Ottawa to demand the release of political prisoners in Algeria.

"He pulls out the exact dates. He says, 'You filmed the MAK demonstrations on such and such dates, such and such places.' I say, 'Yes, but I'm an artist, I'm a cameraman. If someone calls me, it's my job,'" he recounted.

"Afterwards, he named two people, friends I know here in Canada, one of whom comes from my village. He tells me, 'You must stop all contact with these friends forever, because they are MAK activists.'"

It quickly became obvious to Sehaki that the Algerian authorities had been spying on him in Canada for months.

"When he mentioned the dates, the places, what I was doing, I thought, wow, it seems like we were living together."

Sehaki said he doesn't know when he'll next see his family in Algeria, or his beloved mountains of Kabylia, because he refused the consular official's proposal.

He said he was asked to sign a document promising among other things to cease all activity with the MAK. Other members of the Kabyle community mentioned a similar document.

Sehaki said he was also asked to provide the names of other young Kabyles in Canada who have links to the movement.

In return, Algerian authorities would guarantee his right to travel to and from Algeria to see his family without any problems, he said.

"I'm not for sale," Sehaki said. "Yes, I want to return to my native country to see my family, but not at any cost."

Federal, Quebec officials also targeted

Radio-Canada has learned that federal and Quebec government employees are also among the Canadian citizens of Kabyle origin who have recently been the subject of intimidation by Algerian authorities.

Those with whom Radio-Canada spoke did not agree to a formal interview for fear of reprisals against their relatives in Algeria. Radio-Canada has agreed not to identify them for this reason.

"There is a climate of fear in the community," said Kamel Serbouh, president of the Centre Aqvayli de Montréal, the oldest Kabyle association in Quebec.

Serbouh said community members who have returned to Algeria have been questioned upon their arrival at the airport in Algiers.

"Just because the Algerian authorities saw them in the company of MAK activists, they are being interrogated. 'What are your links? Why did you like a Facebook post? We took a photo of you with an activist,'" he said, listing off typical questions.

Radio-Canada was able to confirm that such interrogations took place.

Serbouh said some Canadians have also been prevented from leaving Algeria for weeks and even years.

Contacted by Radio-Canada, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) was not able to say how many Canadians from the Kabyle community have been refused the right to leave Algerian territory.

"Global Affairs Canada does not compile this specific data," the department said.

On its website, however, GAC offers the following warning about travelling to Algeria: "Over the past year, the Algerian government increased the number of arrests of activists…. Algerian authorities have also prevented dual Canadian-Algerian citizens from leaving Algeria after they were identified as politically engaged in Canada. Be aware of the possibility of surveillance and potential repercussions if you discuss the political situation in public or online."

GAC also points out that dual citizenship is not legally recognized in Algeria.

A Canadian risks imprisonment

Mourad Itim knows all too well the price of his political involvement.

"If I return to Algeria, they will arrest me, maybe they will torture me," said Itim, who worked as a Bell Canada technician for 24 years before retiring.

His name appears on the list of people classified as terrorists by the Algerian government for being part of the MAK.

Itim oversees the organization's official broadcast channel TaqVaylit.TV, which streams online.

"I lost my mother last year and I couldn't go to Algeria. It's a bit sad that freedom activists can be convicted because they speak out, because they have a different political opinion. Sometimes it saddens me, sometimes I'm not well," Itim said.

The MAK is calling for a referendum to allow the Kabyles to decide their own future.

Itim compares the organization to the Parti Québécois or the Bloc Québécois in Canada, and said the MAK has around 100 active supporters in this country.

Serbouh, who considers himself an activist within the movement, also compares the aspirations of the Kabyles to those of Quebecers who wish to preserve their language and culture.

Many are demanding their own independent state, while others prefer to remain within Algeria, he said.

"It's normal, it's their right. But can we just let them express themselves?" Serbouh pleaded.

According to him, even Kabyles who aren't politicized hesitate to participate in their community's cultural activities for fear of being blacklisted by Algerian authorities.

"When we don't have the freedom to visit our families, our brothers and sisters, when we don't have the freedom to meet whomever we want in a bar, in a café, in a public place like here, what's left?" Serbouh asked.

"The federal government cannot accept this. We are Canadian citizens."

He wants Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly to intervene with the Algerian government and ensure their rights and freedoms are respected.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 37,000 residents speak Kabyle.

Minister declines interview

Joly refused to grant Radio-Canada an interview about the alleged persecution of Kabyles in Canada, despite repeated requests.

In response to Radio-Canada's questions, GAC wrote in an email: "We maintain long-standing bilateral relations with Algeria, which allows us among other things to engage in discussions with the Algerian government on issues of importance to Canada, particularly on human rights and consular cases."

The department added that Canada "regularly raises" issues related to democratic values ​​with the Algerian authorities.

Bloc Québécois MP Mario Beaulieu, who knows the Kabyle community well, described the minister's silence on the subject as "deplorable."

"It's the whole issue of foreign interference. It seems like there was really a lax attitude by the federal government," he said in an interview with Radio-Canada.

"We realize that it's not only big countries like China, India, Russia, but also smaller countries that do not seem to be shy about intervening with their nationals in Canada."

Beaulieu, who has participated in MAK demonstrations in Montreal and met with some of the group's leaders, said he has never witnessed the group engage in anything other than peaceful activities.

"There are also Kabyles who are pro-Algeria, just as there are Quebecers who are federalists," he said. "Quebecers of Kabyle origin have the right to their opinion and it is unacceptable that they are being intimidated by the Algerian government."

According to Beaulieu, the federal government must better protect its citizens from different countries and ethnic backgrounds.

"Canada must give itself the tools to intervene, and there must be consequences for countries that engage in foreign interference. Right now, countries are intervening and don't seem to be concerned about the reactions of the Canadian government," he said.

For Sehaki, the Algerian government's intimidation is a never-ending nightmare.

"We think we are in Canada, we are at peace, we are free, that we left our problems in Algeria, how many kilometres away? But they follow us everywhere."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brigitte Bureau is an award-winning investigative reporter with Radio-Canada. You can reach her by email: brigitte.bureau@radio-canada.ca.

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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