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Merzoug Touati © 2021 Facebook

(Beirut) – An unjustly imprisoned Algerian blogger and activist ended the hunger strike he had begun three weeks ago to protest both his detention and the conditions in which he was being held, Human Rights Watch said today. The Algerian authorities should immediately release the activist, Merzoug Touati, who was prosecuted for his online criticism of prison conditions.

Touati was detained on December 28, 2021, and sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars (US$700) on January 3, 2022, for “offending state institutions” and “spreading false information” in connection to a Facebook post. An appeals court confirmed the decision on February 16. He is one of hundreds of Algerians currently detained for peaceful expression.

“Touati should be with his family and writing online, not in a prison cell,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Algerian authorities should stop Touati’s years-long persecution and immediately release him.”

Touati, 34, founded and writes for the political website, “hogra” meaning “contempt” or “oppression” in Algerian Arabic. He actively participated in the Hirak protest movement, which began in February 2019 with massive demonstrations to demand political reform. He also covered the Hirak marches for the Algerian news outlet

The police arrested him after he responded to a summons in the city of Ghardaïa, in southern Algeria, on December 28, his wife, Nfissa Touati, told Human Rights Watch. He was first held in Ghardaïa, then transferred to Laghouat prison on March 1.

Touati began his hunger strike on March 29, she said, to denounce his arbitrary imprisonment, poor prison conditions, and his detention in Laghouat, which is 500 kilometers from his family and lawyers in Béjaïa.

Touati described to his wife deplorable detention conditions, saying he shared a small cell without enough beds for him and his nearly 20 cellmates.

Nfissa Touati said that the court convicted her husband over a social media commentary published on October 24 denouncing the detention conditions of a prisoner from Ghardaïa, Mohamed Baba Nadjar. Touati often commented on his case. In October 2021, he wrote an article and published on his Facebook page a video in which he criticizes prison authorities for holding Baba Nadjar far from his family and called for his release.

“Today, we are experiencing exactly what he denounced in this video,” his wife told Human Rights Watch. When she visited him on April 6, she said Touati “had terrible stomach pain and could barely stand. He had lost a lot of weight. His face was yellowish, and he was psychologically unstable.”

Taouti’s family said that since that visit, they had received no information about his health condition. They learned on April 18 that he had ended his hunger strike after being transferred to a hospital on April 8.

Touati was transferred to Bouira prison on April 17 in response to his request to be closer to his residence, his wife said.

On March 13, in a separate case, a Court of First Instance in Béjaïa sentenced Touati to one year in prison and a fine for unauthorized fundraising. His family said that the charge stems from Merzoug’s efforts to raise money to help an ailing local activist who was in need. The appeals trial has not been scheduled.

Touati’s legal troubles date back to 2017 when a court convicted him of incitement for posts online in which he urged public protests against a new finance law, and of “intelligence with a foreign country aimed at harming Algeria,” for publishing an interview he had conducted with an Israeli government spokesperson about the Arab Spring and social protests in Algeria. His original sentence of 10 years was reduced to seven by an appeals court in June 2018. He was released on March 4, 2019, after his sentence was lowered to two years of actual prison time and three years of suspended prison time.

In June 2020, the authorities detained Touati on charges of “calling for an unarmed gathering,” “endangering others,” “offending state institutions,” and “undermining public safety,” his wife said. He was freed after one month and sentenced to a fine.

Algeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression under article 19.

More than 260 people are imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions, many of them in relation to online publications, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), created in August 2019 by activists and lawyers to monitor arrests and trials. Many of them engaged in hunger strikes over the past two years to denounce their arbitrary detention for peaceful expression.

According to Algerian human rights organizations, at least two activists have died in custody over the past six years following a hunger strike. The human rights defender and activist for the rights of the Mozabite people in the M’zab region, northern Sahara, Kamel Eddine Fekhar, died in May 2019 and the journalist Mohamed Tamalt in December 2016.

“Touati's case is emblematic of the systematic persecution by the authorities against those who speak out to defend human rights,” Goldstein said.

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