Algeria: blogger faces death penalty for Facebook post and YouTube video

Merzoug Touati
Merzoug Touati has already been behind bars for nearly a year-and-a-half © Private

Charges against university graduate Merzoug Touati include ‘incitement to gatherings and sit-ins in public spaces’

‘It is ludicrous that a Facebook post expressing peaceful opinion could lead to the death penalty’ - Heba Morayef

An Algerian blogger faces the death penalty on trumped-up espionage charges for a Facebook post and a YouTube video in a trial scheduled to start tomorrow.

Merzoug Touati, who has already been in detention for nearly a year-and-a-half, is accused of encouraging civil unrest. 

In a post on 2 January last year, Mr Touati called for residents in the northern city of Béjaïa to protest against a new finance law. In the second post on YouTube six days later, the blogger interviewed an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson in which he disputes accusations by the Algerian authorities that the Israeli authorities were involved in protests in Algeria. 

Amnesty has reviewed court documents which list as “evidence” posts published by Touati before his Facebook account and website were deleted and found that there was no incitement to violence or advocacy of hatred. His posts were covered by freedom of expression in relation to his work as a citizen-journalist and Amnesty considers Touati a prisoner of conscience held solely for expressing his peaceful opinions.

Touati is a university graduate who was unemployed at the time of his arrest and not  affiliated to a political party or association. In 2015, he began to run a Facebook page and a blog called alhogra.com, since deleted, writing about political and human rights developments in Algeria. During his interrogation, Touati told the investigative judge that the interviews he’d conducted with diplomats, human rights defenders and activists from different religious and political backgrounds were for his online articles. 

Touati has been in detention since 22 January last year and is currently held in El Khemis prison in Béjaïa. He has conducted at least three hunger strikes to protest against his extended detention.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director, said: 

“Every day Merzoug Touati spends in prison is one day too many and a further stain on Algeria’s human rights record. 

“It is ludicrous that a Facebook post expressing peaceful opinion could lead to the death penalty. 

“Algeria must immediately free Touati, a prisoner of conscience, awaiting trial solely for expressing himself online.”

History of the case

Police arrested Merzoug Touati on 18 January 2017. 

On 22 January, the investigative judge in the Béjaïa Tribunal ordered Touati’s pre-trial detention pending investigation on charges including incitement to violence and espionage. 

On 24 October, the Indictment Chamber of the Béjaïa Court formally referred the case to the Criminal Court charging Touati with “incitement to take up arms against the authority of the state”, “incitement to non-armed gathering”, “foreign intelligence aiming at harming diplomatic ties”, as well as “incitement to gatherings and sit-ins in public spaces”.

In November, defence lawyers appealed against the indictment decision before the country’s Supreme Court, but last month Touati asked his lawyers to drop this appeal for fear it would take longer than the Criminal Court’s own verdict. 

Touati’s lawyer Salah Dabouz told Amnesty that the blogger’s detention “has been extended on two occasions for four months, the second of which expired on 22 January 2018. However, the investigative judge failed to order another renewal since then”. 

Article 59 of the Algerian Constitution states that provisional detention should be exceptional and that arbitrary arrest is punished by law.
 

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