Algerian man jailed for Facebook posts 'insulting Islam'
Algerian authorities have sentenced a man to three years in prison for Facebook posts “insulting Islam”.
Human Rights Watch [HRW] condemned the conviction, urging Algerian prosecutors to stop bringing charges against people over "peaceful expressions" of religious, political or other views.
Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, was arrested after sharing Facebook posts which included “a caricature representing the Prophet Mohammad as a terrorist” and other posts “slandering Islam as a religion of intolerance and hatred”, according to court papers.
“Algerian courts have no business judging people’s religious beliefs and opinions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.
“Algeria should urgently revise its penal code to stop criminalising peaceful free expression, including views that may insult Islam and the prophet,” she said.
In May 2016, the Bouslam gendarmerie, as part of its online monitoring, came across Bouhafs’ page, were he had shared a poem from another Facebook page, entitled 1 Million Amazigh Say No to Islam and Its Colonialism, which was written in the style of the Quran but substituted sexual content for the actual verses.
In his last post on June 18, Bouhafs wrote an open letter to the UN Secretary General in which he denounced the “Islamisation of Algerian society” and state repression against Ahmadis and Christians.
Bouhafs, 49, was arrested on July 31 after which the gendarmie searched his house and seized his computer.
Prosecutors charged him under article 144bis of the penal code – which carries a maximum five-year term and 100,000 dinar fine ($914) – for “offending the prophet” and “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam".
Bouhafs' lawyer Salah Debbouz said his client was tried in a single, late-night court session, after which he was sentenced to five years in prison.
The Sétif appeals court retried Bouhafs on August 30, and upheld the conviction, though decreasing the sentence to three years.
HRW has called for Bouhafs’ immediate release.
It argues that Bouhafs’ due process rights were violated during his trial. In the written judgment, the judge states that during the initial hearing session, on July 31, he reminded the defendant of his right to a lawyer and his right to request postponement of the trial, but that Bouhafs waived both rights and “adamantly requested his immediate judgment".
However, Debbouz told HRW that when he visited his client in Bel Air prison on August 8, Bouhafs denied giving such a waiver.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Algeria is a state party, guarantees freedom of expression and opinion, HRW added.
The Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, which reflect international law applicable in Algeria, state that all people accused of a crime have the right to a choose a lawyer to defend them freely, to communicate privately with their lawyer, and to have adequate time to prepare a defence appropriate to the nature of the proceedings.