(Beirut,) – An Algiers appeals court on August 9, 2016, upheld a two-year prison sentence for a journalist who posted a video on Facebook featuring a poem deemed offensive to Algeria’s president, Human Rights Watch said today. Mohamed Tamalt has been in prison since his arrest on June 27, and is reportedly in critical condition from a hunger strike he began after his arrest.
“No speech is safe in Algeria if a poem on Facebook can get you two years in prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Jailing people for allegedly insulting or offending public officials is unjust and threatens anyone seeking to comment on issues of the day.”
Police arrested Tamalt, a freelance journalist with dual Algerian and British nationality, near his parents’ house in Algiers. On June 28, they brought him before the First Instance Court of Sidi Mhamed in Algiers, where an investigative judge ordered his detention for “offending the president” and “defaming a public authority” under articles 144bis and 146 of the penal code.
The charges against Tamalt were for posts on his Facebook page that included a video he shared on April 2, showing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika greeting former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a poem containing insulting verses about Bouteflika. The video was also uploaded to his online journal.
Even though these offenses carry no prison terms but only fines, the court ordered his detention pending trial. The court rejected his request for bail on July 4, prompting his lawyers to walk out in protest at what they considered to be arbitrary detention, one of his lawyers, Noureddine Benissad, told Human Rights Watch. He said that during a hearing on July 11, the court added a charge for an offense against a public official, under article 144, which provides for up to two years in prison. The same day, the court convicted Tamalt and sentenced him to two years in prison for this offense and imposed a 200,000 dinars (US$1,800) fine.
Since 2002, Tamalt has lived in the United Kingdom, where he created an online journal called Assiyak Alarabi (“Arabic Context”). A critic of Algerian authorities, he has blogged his own political views and sometimes provocative information and commentary. Previously he wrote articles for the Algerian daily Al-Khabar.
Algeria’s constitution, as revised on March 7, guarantees the right to freedom of expression in article 48. It states that media freedom is not subject to prior censorship and that offenses cannot be punished by prison. Article 50 also states that the right to freedom of expression may not be used “to harm the dignity, freedom, or rights of others.”
International human rights standards increasingly recognize that public officials must tolerate speech that could be insulting or offensive. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that provides authoritative guidance on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989, stated in a 2011 general comment:
The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties… [A]ll public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition… States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.
“The Algerian authorities should quash the case against Tamalt and send the message that free speech will be respected in Algeria,” Whitson said.