Despite the welcome release from prison expected today for newspaper director Mohamed Benchicou, critics of Algeria’s government continue to risk reprisal in the form of a barrage of defamation suits and, on occasion, dubious criminal charges, Human Rights Watch said today.
Such prosecutions and other pressures have significantly curbed press freedom in Algeria compared to seven years ago, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was first elected.
Director of the Algiers-based French-language daily Le Matin, Benchicou served the full two years in prison to which an Algiers court sentenced him on a currency offense. Before his conviction in June 2004, Benchicou and his newspaper had virulently criticized Bouteflika and other ministers in his government. In February of that year, two months before Bouteflika was elected to a second term, Benchicou published a biography entitled Bouteflika, an Algerian Fraud.
“Authorities claimed that Benchicou violated customs regulations to justify putting him in prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “But his real crime was attacking the president and his associates at a time when they were determined to mute such criticism.”
Benchicou’s legal troubles are not over. At least 10 libel complaints against him are making their way through the courts, including some filed by, or on behalf of, public officials and institutions for articles published in Le Matin. In two cases, appeals courts have sentenced Benchicou to actual time in prison, sentences he has not been begun serving only because he has appealed the judgments to the country’s highest court, the Court of Cassation.
In this respect, Benchicou’s plight resembles that of the many other editors and journalists who have been in and out of court responding to defamation complaints against them for articles and political cartoons. In 2001, the government enacted amendments to the penal code stiffening punishments for verbal attacks on public officials. One provision specifically criminalized words or images deemed insulting or defamatory toward the president, punishing offenders with up to 12 months in prison and a fine.
Another provision provides the same penalties for insults and defamation directed at parliament, the justice system, the army or any other state body or public institution. Bachir Larabi, a correspondent in El-Bayodh for the daily El-Khabar, spent a month in prison earlier this year for “defaming” local officials.
The criminal case for which Benchicou served two years in prison centered on his failure to declare to customs authorities certificates of deposit (bons de caisse) that he was carrying with him when he returned from abroad on August 23, 2003. On that afternoon, border police at Algiers airport searched Benchicou’s baggage in his presence and found certificates issued by a bank in Algeria and valued at 11.7 million Algerian dinars (U.S.$127,000). The agents photocopied and then returned the certificates. They let Benchicou go without informing him that he had broken any laws, or presenting him with a report to sign, or advising him to declare the certificates to customs authorities. Benchicou then proceeded through customs without declaring the certificates.
The following day, the state news agency sent out a news dispatch headlined “11,700,000 dinars discovered in the baggage of the director of Le Matin daily.” The court then opened an investigation and three days later placed Benchicou under “judicial control,” confiscating his passport and preventing him from traveling abroad.
On June 14, 2004, the Criminal Court of El-Harrach tried and convicted Benchicou of having violated laws regulating the movement of funds, on the grounds that his certificates of deposit constituted a form of capital that the law required him to declare to customs authorities. The judge sentenced him to two years in prison and a fine of 20 million dinars (U.S.$217,000) and ordered him imprisoned immediately. Higher courts later confirmed the conviction while increasing the amount of the fine.
Benchicou’s defense team argued that the law does not specify that certificates of deposit constitute funds that must be declared, nor does it imply as much since the certificates are more a receipt for a loan than they are like currency, and their “movement” does not entail the movement of the funds behind them, which remain at a bank in Algeria.
The defense asserted that this was the first time ever in Algeria that the non-declaration of certificates of deposit had been prosecuted as a violation of regulations on the flow of funds. Benchicou was unaware that he was violating any law, and even the border police who found the certificates on him did not respond as if he had done so, the defense said.
During his two years in al-Harrach prison, Benchicou has continued to shuttle to court to answer to outstanding defamation charges against him, both for what he himself had written and in his capacity as director of Le Matin. On June 7 he appeared in court to respond to a complaint filed by the minister of energy and mines, Chekib Khelil, over articles in Le Matin linking the minister to questionable real estate deals. The hearing was postponed until July 12.
In another case, Benchicou and colleagues are charged with defaming the defense ministry for an article charging that the agents of the gendarmerie – a security force under the ministry’s authority – used violence and torture to suppress civil unrest in the eastern town of Tkout. The article, based heavily on victim testimony, ran shortly before Le Matin’s closure in 2004.
Benchicou hopes to recover his passport upon his release. It was confiscated in 2003, when the court opened its criminal investigation against him. There would be no legal justification for withholding it now.
Benchicou’s wife Fatiha Benchicou said her husband hopes to resume publishing Le Matin. It stopped appearing in July 2004 when the state-owned SIMPRAL press refused to continue printing it until it paid its outstanding bills in full. The preceding month, shortly after Benchicou’s conviction, authorities seized the paper’s assets, including its building in Algiers, and auctioned them off to pay taxes they said it owed.
Another daily newspaper critical of the government, er-Raï (The Opinion), has not published since 2003, when state-owned printers demanded payment of all bills within 48 hours. Ahmed Benaoum, the director of er-Raï, spent 11 months in pre-trial detention before an Oran court acquitted him, in June 2005, of trumped-up charges of tax evasion and falsifying official documents.
Access to state-owned printers is one of the indirect subsidies that authorities provide to much of the print media. The Algerian government sometimes denies or cuts such services as a way of pressuring or punishing more critical papers like Le Matin and er-Raï.
“When Mohamed Benchicou walks free today, Algeria will have no more journalists in prison,” said Whitson. “But until courts can ensure fair trials of government critics, and authorities repeal repressive defamation laws, he is unlikely to be the last.”