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Algeria: Islamic scholar given three-year jail term for 'offending Islam'

Said Djabelkheir is a prominent expert on Islam © Private

Said Djabelkheir sentenced for three posts on Facebook questioning authenticity of certain aspects of Islamic belief

Scholar has been target of death threats dating back more than ten years

‘Algerian courts have no business judging people’s religious beliefs and opinions’ - Amna Guellali

A well-known Islamic expert in Algeria has been given a three-year jail sentence for “offending” Islam with comments he posted on Facebook, which Amnesty International has described as a “flagrant violation of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.” 
 
In three Facebook posts in January 2020, Said Djabelkheir drew comparisons between Eid al-Adha and the Berber New Year celebrations, referred to some stories in the Qur’an as “myths”, and said he considered certain hadiths “apocryphal”.

The Sidi Mhamed Court of First Instance today convicted him of “offending the Prophet of Islam” and “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam" under Article 144bis of Algeria’s Penal Code. The court sentenced Djabelkheir to a three-year prison term but did not issue a detention order so he has not yet been taken into custody. Lawyers will appeal the decision.  
 
The charges were brought after a teacher at the University of Sidi Bel Abbès, who considered Djabelkheir’s Facebook posts had violated religious precepts, pressed charges against him with the investigative judge of the Sidi Mhamed court.
 
Djabelkheir told Amnesty that he was not notified about his prosecution and that he only learned of it when friends alerted him in January 2020. The scholar said that during the course of the entire investigation by the Sidi Mhamed judge he was never summoned for interrogation. Neither was he informed of his trial date, and only learned of it via Facebook posts. His trial took place at the Sidi Mhamed court on 1 April.
 
For years Djabelkheir has been the victim of online and offline harassment for peacefully expressing his views. He told Amnesty that he has received numerous death threats on Facebook since he joined it in 2007.  

Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said: 

“It is outrageous that Said Djabelkheir is facing three years in prison simply for voicing his opinions about religious texts. 

“Punishing someone for their analysis of religious doctrines is a flagrant violation of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief - even if the comments are deemed offensive by others.

“Algerian courts have no business judging people’s religious beliefs and opinions. Said Djabelkheir’s conviction must be quashed immediately. Any provisions in Algeria’s penal code that criminalise the rights to freedom of expression, opinion or belief must be urgently repealed.”

Crackdown on dissent

The Algerian authorities have previously used Article 144bis of the penal code to crack down on dissent and prosecute activists. On 8 October last year, a court in Khenchla, in eastern Algeria, handed down a ten-year prison sentence and a heavy fine against the activist Yacine Mebarki for charges that included “offending the Prophet of Islam”. The verdict was later reduced on appeal to one year in jail. In 2016, a court in Setif sentenced Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, to three years in prison under the same article for Facebook posts criticising religious ideas. 

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

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