Beirut — Algerian authorities should immediately free a blogger who has been on hunger strike since July 8, 2018 to protest his seven-year prison sentence on charges for which he should never have been prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today.
On June 21, an appeals court reduced the sentence of Merzoug Touati from 10 years to 7. He was convicted of incitement for urging public protests against a new finance law, and of "intelligence with a foreign country aiming at harming Algeria" for publishing an interview with an Israeli government spokesperson. Touati has been imprisoned since January 22, 2017 in Oued Ghir prison in Bejaia.
"Seven years in prison for a citizen journalist based on his peaceful expression and reporting is a damning indictment on the state of freedom of speech in Algeria," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
In a post published on January 2, 2017 on his blog Al Hogra, since shut down, Touati said that the people of the city of Bejaia, where he lives, should protest against a new finance law that took effect on January 1 of that year and which imposed many tax increases.
Then on January 8, he uploaded to Youtube his interview with a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, who denied any Israeli involvement in the Arab Spring or in social protests in Algeria and affirmed that Israel had had diplomatic representation in Algeria until 2006. The interview was newsworthy in that Algeria's then-housing and urbanization minister, Abdelmajid Tebboune, had a few days earlier declared that "foreign hands," through websites and Facebook accounts, including in Israel, were behind the finance law protests.
Authorities arrested Touati on January 18, 2017. A prosecutor at the court of first instance in Bejaia charged him with "incitement to take up arms against the authority of the state," "incitement to a gathering of an unarmed nature," "intelligence with a foreign country aiming at harming Algeria," and "incitement to gatherings and sit-ins in public spaces." The appeals court sentenced him for the last two of these charges.
Salah Dabouz, Touati's lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the last time he visited Touati, on July 16, Touati had lost weight and looked weak. "He told me he is protesting a trial he sees as political, and a judgment that is unjust," Dabouz said.
Authorities have prosecuted several bloggers and journalists during the past two years on charges of criminal defamation, insulting the president, or other charges related to their writings and publications on social media. On June 6, the Appeals Court of Relizane upheld a two-year prison sentence against Abdullah Benaoum, a blogger and social media activist, for writings criticizing the "National Reconciliation" policy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which provided sweeping immunity for people responsible for grave human rights violations during the civil strife in Algeria of the 1990s.
Mohamed Tamalt, a journalist, died in prison on December 11, 2016, following a hunger strike to protest his two-year prison term for articles and posts criticizing or insulting President Bouteflika.
Algeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression under article 19, and has long been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and other human rights bodies and experts, for violations of freedom of expression, notwithstanding protections provided for in the 2016 Constitution.
"Touati should not be in prison, and he certainly should not die in prison because his rights have been violated," Whitson said. "Algeria should release Touati immediately and carry out its commitment to respect freedom of speech."