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Algeria slashes activist's jail term for 'offending Islam'

AFP logoAFP 11/25/2020 AFP
a group of people standing on a sidewalk in front of a crowd: Mebarki was active in Algeria's mass protest movement the Hirak © RYAD KRAMDI Mebarki was active in Algeria's mass protest movement the Hirak

An Algerian appeals court Wednesday slashed a heavy jail sentence against activist Yacine Mebarki, convicted of "offending Islam" amid a crackdown against an opposition protest movement.

The court reduced Mebarki's prison term from 10 years to one after upholding convictions including "offending the precepts of (Islam)", but overturning others with heavier sentences including "profaning the Koran", wrote lawyer Hachem Saci on Facebook.

Mebarki, a member of the North African country's Berber minority who has been involved in the long-running Hirak protest movement, was arrested on September 30 after police searched his home.

They found an old copy of the Koran with a ripped page, as well as two antique bullets.

A lower court sentenced him in October to 10 years in prison, after convicting him on the charges above as well as "incitement to discrimination" and unauthorised possession of "war materiel".

But the appeals court overturned convictions on the more serious charges of "profaning the Koran" and encouraging another Muslim to leave the religion, Saci said.

The court in Khenchela, in the country's northeast, also reduced an original fine from 10 million dinars (almost $78,000) to 50,000 dinars (around $390). 

The original ruling against Mebarki, 52, would have been the harshest prison sentence yet against a Hirak activist, according to the CNLD prisoners' support group. 

The Hirak movement started with mass protests in early 2019 against longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in office.

- 'Force and repression' -

After Bouteflika quit under pressure from demonstrators and the army, Hirak activists continued their campaign for a deep overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria's 1962 independence from France.

The movement was forced to suspend its demonstrations in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and authorities have launched a crackdown against opposition activists.

Another Hirak activist, 25-year-old Walid Kechida, is also facing charges of "offending the precepts" of Islam, among other charges, over satirical social media posts regarding religion, according to lawyer Moumen Chadi.

The CNLD says around 90 pro-Hirak activists, social media users and journalists are currently in custody.

Rights group Amnesty International had called Mebarki's original conviction "extremely serious". 

"It shows the extent to which the judicial authorities are repressing activists," said Amnesty's deputy regional director Amna Guellali.

A revised constitution, approved on November 1 in a referendum marked by record low turnout of just 23.7 percent, makes no mention of freedom of conscience, unlike the previous version.

The vote was seen as an attempt by authorities to undermine the Hirak, which had called for a boycott. 

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who has been receiving treatment in Germany for the Covid-19 illness, has referred to the "blessed Hirak" but his administration has clamped down hard on the movement.

The authorities "are trying to win credibility by force and repression," said Oussama Azizi, a friend of Mebarki.

"You speak, you go to prison. You think, you go to prison."

abh/agr/par/lg

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