- Algerian journalists are increasingly sent to prison for their critical reporting on the government and on corruption. Last week, four journalists of the daily newspaper 'Le Matin' were given prison sentences and a court in Algiers has turned down an appeal for the conditional release of the paper's imprisoned managing editor, Mohamed Benchicou.
Mr Benchicou has been detained since 14 June last year. In a decision this week by the Court of Algiers, his appeal for a conditional release was turned down. The Algerian judiciary thus decided to keep him in jail despite a request by the prison doctor advising him to be hospitalised.
According to his lawyers, the managing editor of 'Le Matin' is suffering from acute cervical arthritis and carries the risk of having his face paralysed. The counsel's speech delivered by the civil party, although emphasising that Mr Benchicou would respect any decision from the court no matter how restrictive it might be, had not been able to get any response from the chair of the court.
According to press freedom groups, this situation reflected "the determined will of the Algerian authorities to strengthen their position over the independent press." The ruling further took place the day before a series of prison sentences were handed down to several journalists of 'Le Matin' daily, suspended by the Algerian authorities since July 2004.
Taking into account two cases concerning articles written by journalists describing allegations of racketeering made against several politicians, and charges of financial mismanagement made against the Sonatrach oil company during the period from 2001 to 2003, the Algiers tribunal finally delivered a series of harsh verdicts as well as an extended sentence against Mr Benchicou.
Youssef Rezzoug and Yasmine Ferroukhi were sentenced to three months in prison. Abla Chérif, along with Hassane Zerrouky, a journalist for l'Humanité, were sentenced to two months in prison. Mohamed Benchicou was sentenced to five months in prison.
The defence team for the journalists contested, point by point, pleading against a series of accusations. At the same time, the tribunal imposed a number of prison sentences even though the plaintiffs only requested one symbolic dinar of compensation.
Algerian journalists' representatives now fear that the four convicted parties could be imprisoned before the conclusion of the appeal process put forward by the defence.
These "signs of retrenchment within a progressively totalitarian regime point to a deliberate will to stifle independent voices," said Nadir Benseba of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in Algiers. "This policy of repression was instigated by the President at the beginning of the year, when he encouraged the judges not to be intimidated by the writing of the 'mercenaries of the pen'."
- The Algerian government has launched a campaign that seeks to tear the independent press into pieces, added Aidan White from IFJ's headquarters in Brussels. "The political corruption of the judiciary following these attacks on civil rights, and legally backed by now weekly trials, highlights the breakdown of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Algeria."
According to IFJ, one of the most disturbing aspects of these weekly legal affairs, nicknamed the "Tuesday trials", is that journalists are indicted on defamation grounds without any parallel obligation for plaintiffs to prove their allegations.
- This succession of political trials against journalists takes place while democratic states simply hang on to a policy of steady and silent diplomacy, said Mr White. "It is urgent that the voices of democracy unite to confront those systematic violations of fundamental civil rights in Algeria," he added.
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