(Beirut) – An Algerian court sentenced a freelance journalist and human rights activist to one year in prison on November 28, 2016, for a video interview featuring allegations of police and judicial corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. He was imprisoned the same day and appealed his sentence. 

Hassan Bouras in 2014, as seen in this still image from Youtube.

 
Noureddine Ahmine, Bouras’ lawyer, said the first instance court of al-Bayadh, a city 500 kilometers south of Algiers, convicted Bouras for “insulting a judge or a public officer,” “insult and defamation of state institutions,” and “unlawfully practicing a profession regulated by the law” under articles 144, 146, and 243 of the Penal Code. Criminal defamation laws are contrary to international standards on freedom of expression, and Algeria should remove them from its criminal code, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Algerian authorities should immediately quash Bouras’ sentence, release him and scrap the criminal laws that convicted him,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Corruption accusations might be met with civil suits where warranted, but never prison time for the accuser.”

In addition, if the charge of “unlawfully practicing a profession regulated by the law” applies to Bouras’ exercise of journalism, this too would constitute a violation of free speech standards.

The indictment, dated November 23 and signed by an al-Bayadh investigative judge, says that Bouras’s prosecution stems from a video in which he interviewed three people about cases of police and judicial corruption and embezzlement. The people interviewed named police agents and judges who were allegedly involved. The independent TV channel Al-Magharibya broadcast the video on October 7.

The Algerian authorities should immediately quash Bouras’ sentence, release him and scrap the criminal laws that convicted him. Corruption accusations might be met with civil suits where warranted, but never prison time for the accuser.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

Bouras is a board member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights in al-Bayadh. He has been a regular contributor to Al-Magharibya, a privately owned TV station. He has repeatedly criticized the Algerian government and accused local officials of corruption. He has also written for al-Khabar, an independent national daily.

The language in the indictment suggests political motives for prosecuting Bouras. It states that the video is “fabricated by Hassan Bouras, who is well known before our court for his hostility toward the regime and was prosecuted numerous times for undermining public security and collaborating with hostile TV stations such as Al-Magharibya, and now he resumes his confrontations with and destabilization of state institutions.”

The indictment states that Bouras acknowledged filming the video but denied sending it to Al-Magharibya.

 

The basis for convicting Bouras for unlawfully practicing a profession regulated by the law is not known. The three people Bouras interviewed were prosecuted on the same charges and sentenced to one year in prison.

Authorities had arrested Bouras previously, on October 2, 2015, and sentenced him to two years in prison for charges that include defamation. He was released on January 18, 2016.

Numerous provisions of the Algerian penal code provide prison terms for peaceful expression. Article 50 of Algeria’s constitution, as revised on March 7, 2016, guarantees the right to freedom of expression. It states that “press offenses cannot be punished by prison.” However, the impact of this new constitutional provision is unclear since the penal code contains many offenses for nonviolent speech that provide for prison terms, including the ones for which the court convicted Bouras.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Algeria is a party has said that it is essential not to subject comment on public issues to censorship or restraint. It has also said that all public figures are legitimately subject to public criticism, and that there should be no prohibition of criticism of public institutions. Further, defamation should in principle be treated as a civil, not a criminal, matter and never punished with a prison term.

The committee has also stated, with respect to regulating the profession, “journalism is a function shared by a wide range of actors, including professional full-time reporters and analysts, as well as bloggers and others who engage in forms of self-publication in print, on the internet or elsewhere, and general State systems of registration or licensing of journalists are incompatible with paragraph 3 [of ICCPR’s Article 19, specifying permissible restrictions on freedom of expression]. Limited accreditation schemes are permissible only where necessary to provide journalists with privileged access to certain places and/or events.”

In a resolution on Algeria passed on April 28, 2015, the European Parliament noted the increasing government harassment of human rights activists and expressed concern about the “abuse of the judiciary as a tool to stifle dissent in the country.” It urged the Algerian authorities to strictly uphold the independence of the judiciary and to effectively guarantee the right to a fair trial, in line with the Algerian Constitution and international legal standards.