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Algeria February 23, 2005
H.E. Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria
Fax: (011.213.2) 60-96-18
We write to express our indignation at last month’s harsh and unjustified sentences imposed on eight journalists and four newspapers in Sidi M’hamed. Worse, these verdicts by a local court have — by all accounts — been greeted with indifference by Algeria’s central government.
In each case, the draconian judgments were justified under article 144 of Algeria’s criminal code, which makes insulting or defaming the president punishable by two to 12 months in prison and a fine.
On January 25th, in a libel hearing against Le Soir d’Algérie, the prosecutor’s office in Sidi M’hamed requested a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 DA for editor, Fouad Boughanem. The case is the result of an action brought by two members of the Banque de Développement Local (BDL) over an article published in the newspaper’s “Soir corruption” section four years ago.
The court also sentenced another journalist with Le Soir d’Algérie, Zoubir Souissi, to pay a fine of 50,000 DA and damages of 200,000 DA in a libel action brought by a BDL manager. The prosecutor’s office further requested that Le Soir d’Algérie be suspended six months for libel…notwithstanding the absence of any provision for suspensions in Algeria’s press code.
On the same day of the verdict against Le Soir d’Algérie in Sidi M’hamed, the former managing editor of Liberté, Farid Alilat — along with one of the newspaper’s former journalists, Rédha Belhadjoudja, and a reporter with Le Soir d’Algérie, Hakim Laalam — were given suspended sentences of six months and a fine of 250,000 DA for libeling the president.
The case grew out of an article Liberté ran in the summer of 2003, that was published in solidarity with five Algerian newspapers, which at the time, were prevented from publishing. The libel action was brought against the two newspapers by the General Directorate for National Security (DGSN) over a letter mentioned in that article allegedly authored by Algerian police and accusing the DGSN director and his secretary-general of questionable activities. None of the reporters in the case would reveal their sources during their trial.
The Sidi M’hamed court also imposed suspended sentences of six months in prison, together with damages of 3 million DA and a fine of 50,000 DA for Omar Belhouchet, the editor of El Watan, journalist, Salima Tlemçani and Ali Djerri, the editor of the daily, El Khabar. Ali Djerri, in still another libel case brought by the agriculture ministry, received a suspended sentence of two months in prison, was fined 50,000 DA and was ordered to pay symbolic damages of one dinar.
We stand with the defense attorney for Le Soir d’Algérie , who observed that last month’s verdicts mean “no newspaper is safe. Journalists must abide by the law when doing their job, but it is worrying to see the prosecutor’s office requesting suspension in an ordinary libel case.”
That all these events happened on the same day in Sidi M’hamed last month only brings out in relief the dismal record of fines and suspended sentences imposed on our Algerian colleagues in recent months. There appears to be a clear ambition to restrain free expression in Algeria, and that bodes poorly for your nation.
Freedom of the Press Committee
Ambassador of Algeria to the U.S.A.
Embassy of the Dem. & Pop. Algeria
2137 Wyoming Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Fax: (202) 667-2174
Ambassador Abdallah Baali
Permanent Mission of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria
to the United Nations
326 East 48th Street
New York, NY 10017
Fax: (212) 759-9538
Richard W. Erdman
U.S. Ambassador to Algeria
Embassy of the United States of America
4 chemin Cheikh Bachir El-Ibrahimi
Fax: (011.213.2) 69-39-79