(Beirut) – Algeria’s prosecutor’s office should drop its criminal blasphemy investigation of a writer over his 2016 novel, Human Rights Watch said today. The Algerian authorities should uphold freedom of expression and take immediate steps to abolish the blasphemy law.

Algerian novelist Anouar Rahmani. 

© 2017 Anouar Rahmani

The judicial police in Tipaza, a city 70 kilometers from Algiers, interrogated Anouar Rahmani, a 25-year-old law student and novelist, on February 28, 2017. They told him that the public prosecutor had opened an investigation into “The City of White Shadows,” a novel he published online in August 2016. They filed a report accusing him of insulting Islam in his novel. Rahmani is free pending a decision by the prosecutor on whether to charge him.

It is not the business of the prosecutor to question the author about their religious beliefs.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

“It is not the business of the prosecutor to question the author about their religious beliefs,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.  

Cover of Anouar Rahmani’s online Arabic novel The City of White Shadow.  

© 2017 Anouar Rahmani

Rahmani told Human Rights Watch that he received a police summons on February 27, 2017 at his house. When he went to the Tipaza police station the following morning, seven policemen interrogated him about his novel. In one chapter, a child converses with a homeless man who calls himself “God” and claims that he has created the sky out of chewing gum. The novel also depicts a gay romance between a freedom fighter and a French settler during the Algerian war for independence.

Rahmani said the policemen asked him questions such as, “Do you pray?” “Why did you insult God?” “Why did you write such a novel?” They told him that the novel’s mocking tone insulted Islam and that its sexual vocabulary contravened good morals.

Rahmani said that after ten hours of interrogation he signed a police report that stated that he is under investigation pursuant to Article 144bis of the penal code, which 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.” The prosecutor must now decide whether to charge Rahmani.

Rahmani said he was the target of threats and slander campaigns on the internet and in the Algerian media for defending the LGBT community, criticizing the use of religion to restrict rights, and defending religious minorities on his blog, Journal of an Atypical Algerian. On June 2, 2016, the international nongovernmental group Frontline Defenders denounced the accusations of blasphemy and apostasy against Rahmani on the social media pages of students in his university, as well as in an Algerian daily journal.

“The biggest blasphemy is to think that God could be hurt by a novel, and that he is so weak that he needs to be defended by the police,” Rahmani told Human Rights Watch

Laws that criminalize the “defamation” of religion or religious groups are not compatible with norms of freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria has ratified, stated that it is not permissible for “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws … to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

Article 42 of the Algerian Constitution guarantees freedom of thought and conscience. Article 44 protects the freedom “of artistic creation.”

In September 2016, the Setif Appeals court sentenced Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, to three years in prison for Facebook posts under the same penal code article for “insulting Islam.” Bouhafs is currently serving his term.