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(Beirut) – An Algerian appeals court sentenced a man to three years in prison for Facebook posts “insulting Islam.” Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, has been detained in Bel Air prison in the province of Sétif since August 1. He was convicted by a lower court on August 7, who initially sentenced him to five years in prison.

The Algerian authorities should immediately release Bouhafs. Algerian prosecutors should stop bringing charges against people for their peaceful expression of religious, political, or other views.

“Algerian courts have no business judging people’s religious beliefs and opinions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Algeria should urgently revise its penal code to stop criminalizing peaceful free expression, including views that may insult Islam and the prophet,” she said.

Bouhafs, 49, was arrested by the gendarmerie on July 31, in Bouslam, a commune in the province of Sétif. His daughter, Lyly Bouhafs, told Human Rights Watch that the gendarmerie phoned him that day and ordered him to report to their headquarters in Bouslam. They then placed him under arrest and took him to his house, where they conducted a search and seized his computer. His lawyer, Salah Dabouz, said the gendarmerie transferred him that night to the First Instance Court of Beni Ouarthlane in Sétif province.

A court prosecutor charged him under article 144bis of the penal code – an article that provides for a prison term of three to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 dinars (US$914) for “offending the prophet” and “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam.” Dabouz said that Bouhafs was tried in a single, late-night court session, after which he was sentenced to five years in prison. The Sétif appeals court retried Bouhafs on August 30, and announced its verdict on September 6.

In its written judgement, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the first instance judge recounts that, in May 2016, the Bouslam gendarmerie, as part of its Facebook monitoring, came across Bouhafs’s page, where “he shared four distorted Koranic verses and photos offensive to the Prophet, as well as articles denigrating the Islamic religion.” The electronic crimes brigade at the gendarmerie headquarters in Algiers then opened an investigation into the case.

The judgment states that the court convicted Bouhafs, who said he converted to Christianity in 1999, on the basis of Facebook posts he published between May and June 2016. These included “a caricature representing the Prophet Mohamed as a terrorist” and other posts “slandering Islam as a religion of intolerance and hatred.”

Bouhafs’ Facebook page has 1,718 followers. In his last post, dated June 18, Bouhafs shared an open letter that he wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations, in which he denounces the “Islamisation of Algerian society” and state repression against Ahmadis and Christians. On May 14, he shared a poem published on a Facebook page entitled “1 Million Amazigh Say No to Islam and Its Colonialism,” which was written in the style of the Koran but substituted sexual content for the actual verses.

During his trial, Bouhafs’ due process rights were seemingly violated. In the written judgment, the judge states that during the initial hearing session, on July 31, he reminded the defendant of his right to a lawyer and his right to request postponement of the trial, but that Bouhafs waived both rights and “adamantly requested his immediate judgment.” However, Dabouz told Human Rights Watch that when he visited his client in Bel Air prison on August 8, Bouhafs denied giving such a waiver, saying that the judge did not inform him of his right to a lawyer nor his right to postpone the trial.

Under article 338 of Algeria’s procedural code, the sitting judge has an obligation to inform the individual of their right to request time to prepare their defense. If the accused exercises this right, the court shall allow him a period of at least three days.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Algeria is a state party, guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. The UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body that interprets the ICCPR, noted in 2011 that “[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant.”

The Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, which reflect international law applicable in Algeria, state that all people accused of a crime have the right to a choose a lawyer to defend them freely, to communicate privately with their lawyer, and to have adequate time to prepare a defense appropriate to the nature of the proceedings.

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