A Christian in Algeria has been sentenced to five years in prison – the maximum term – and given a heavy fine for blasphemy against Islam and its prophet, for a social media post.
Slimane Bouhafs, 49, appeared before a judge on 7 Aug in the eastern town of Setif (300km from Algiers, the capital) in the Kabylie region.
He was arrested on 31 July for posting a message on social media about the light of Jesus overcoming the “lie” of Islam and its prophet. He also published photos showing the execution of a civilian by an Islamist terrorist.
Such material is judged by the authorities to insult Islam, the state religion in Algeria, according to its Constitution. The penal code provides for a penalty of three to five years in prison, along with a heavy fine, against anyone convicted of insulting Islam and Muhammad, its prophet.
The Vice-President of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), Said Salhi, denounced what he called “this attack” on the guarantees of freedom of conscience and worship enshrined in Algeria’s Constitution.
The human rights group said it wished to “alert public opinion and defenders of liberties to this new attack against the rights guaranteed by national laws and the international instruments of human rights”. LADDH also called for Bouhafs’ unconditional release and for “a broad mobilization to push back an unlawful act, to let justice triumph”.
The news of his sentence was a shock for his family, who denounced what they called a “sham” trial of the man who became a Christian in 1997, and who was baptised in 2006. His daughter, Afaf, described her father as a man who has always defended the interests of his country from a young age. She said he is known for his commitment to democracy and religious freedom in all his writings published on his Facebook page.
Bouhafs’ family said they are deeply concerned, as he suffers from a chronic illness and his health may deteriorate as he goes to prison. According to his daughter, he suffers from inflammatory rheumatism, a disease that worsens under stress. “He needs to follow a special diet,” she said.
The President of the Protestant Church of Algeria says its lawyer will appeal the verdict.
Religion and identity claims
Bouhafs’ maximum sentence was “severe in view of a rather minor offence”, a source who preferred to remain anonymous told World Watch Monitor. Such comments on social media are common in Algeria without usually triggering the wrath of the authorities, the source added.
The heavy sentence could also be seen as a means of silencing Bouhafs because of his political activism. He belongs to a movement for the self-determination of Kabylie (known as MAK), a separatist group not tolerated by the authorities. MAK activists are regularly harassed and even arrested.
Kabylie, home to most of Algeria’s tiny but fast-growing Christian minority, is a vast region – similar in size to Denmark – in the north-east of Algeria, on the edge of the Mediterranean. It comprises the provinces of Tizi-Ouzou and Béjaïa, among others.
Kabylie is considered a “recalcitrant” region, where a strong sense of regional identity and resistance to all forms of central control have developed over the years. Mainly populated by Berbers – while the rest of Algeria is predominantly populated by Arabs – the region has always had a tumultuous relationship with the central government in Algiers.
Kabylie’s landscape of forests and mountainous terrain, riddled with caves, has provided a fertile ground for guerrillas. On 24 September, 2014, a French tourist, Hervé Gourdel, was assassinated in Kabylie by a radical Islamist group, Soldiers of the Caliphate, which has pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.
Kabylie used to be a refuge for fighters during the Algerian War of Independence against the French colonialists. In the 1990s, at the heart of the Algerian Civil War, the area then became a hideout for combatants from the Armed Islamic Group, which later mutated into Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), responsible for the kidnap of several Western nationals in Sub-Saharan Africa. AQIM was strongly involved in the occupation in 2012 of northern Mali, along much of Algeria’s southern border.
The Algerian army, which regularly carries out searches in Kabylie, has never been able to completely eradicate terrorism and banditry in the region.