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In Algeria, Two Imprisoned Bloggers Go on Hunger Strike

A portrait of 80-year-old Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been ruling the country since 1999. Photo: Thierry Ehrmann, courtesy of Organ Museum

Two Algerian bloggers have recently gone on hunger strike to protest their imprisonment for expressing themselves online.

Merzoug Touati has been in jail since 18 January for interviewing an Israeli official, while Slimane Bouhafs was arrested on 31 July 2016 for Facebook posts deemed “offensive to Islam.”

On 7 October, Reporters Without Borders reported that Touati has been on hunger strike since 13 September. The press freedom watchdog expressed concerns about the bloggers’ health and reported that “his weak condition” prevented him from answering an investigative judge's questions on 3 October.

According to Amnesty Algeria, Bouhafs began a hunger strike on 2 October.

Merzoug Touati. Photo shared on the Facebook page of his blog Alhogra

Merzoug Touati: Jailed for an interview

Touati is currently in detention pending trial for interviewing Hassan Kaabia, the Israeli foreign ministry's spokesperson for Arabic-speaking media, and then posting the interview on YouTube and his blog, Alhogra.

He was charged under Article 71 of the Penal Code which prescribes a punishment of up to 20 years in jail for anyone convicted of “exchanging with agents of a foreign power intelligence which could harm the military or diplomatic status of Algeria or its vital economic interests.” He could face an additional one to five years in prison for “incitement to armed protests against the State.”

The interview focused on the public response to the 2017 Finance Law, which includes an increase in value-added, income and property taxes, and a decrease in fuel subsidies. When the law went into effect on 1 January, strikes and riots erupted in the northern province of Bejaia and other parts of the country.

An Algerian government minister accused foreign powers of meddling in the country's affairs and orchestrating the protests. In the interview, Touati asked Kaabia about accusations made by the Algerian government. Kaabia denied any Israeli involvement.

On his blog (which is currently inaccessible to the public) Touati has consistently covered anti-austerity strikes and job protests, and rights violations committed by Algerian authorities.

Learn about the physiological effects of a hunger strike with the infographic below, created by our partners at Visualizing Impact.

Slimane Bouhafs: Jailed for Facebook posts

Another blogger, Slimane Bouhafs, who is currently serving a three-year jail sentence for “offending” prophet Muhammad and Islam, went on hunger strike on 2 October, according to Amnesty's Algeria office:

A request for the conditional release of Slimane Bouhafs has been rejected. He has gone on hunger strike since October 2.

Bouhafs is a Christian convert and an activist with the St. Augustine Coordination of Christians in Algeria which supports the rights of religious minorities in the country.

Prior to his arrest, he regularly posted about the situation of Algeria's Christian minority on Facebook, his Google+ profile and personal blog. According to Amnesty International, he is also a supporter of the Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), an independent political group seeking autonomy for the northern Berber region of Kabylie, a hotspot of protests against the marginalization of Algerian Amazighs, their culture and language.

One of the posts cited as evidence against him featured a cartoon by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo showing prophet Muhammad crying. In the comment field, Bouhafs wrote that “Muhammad lost” in Kabylie and Algeria, and that “his lie will disappear because the light of Christ is here.”

 

Media under siege in Algeria

Freedom of expression and press freedom are under siege in Algeria. The country is ranked 134 out of 180 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Bloggers and journalists face criminal prosecution if they cross certain red lines including criticizing the ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who has been ruling the country since 1999, corruption, religion and criticism of the police and the judiciary.

On 11 December 2016, blogger Mohamad Tamalt died in a hospital in the capital Algiers. Tamalt was serving a two year-jail sentence for publishing on Facebook a poem and a video that contained comments that were deemed disparaging towards Bouteflika. In protest he went on hunger strike in late June 2016 Two months after starting his hunger strike he entered a coma.

Today, the lives of two other bloggers are at risk, as they refrain from eating to gain back their freedoms. Will the Algerian government listen and end its crackdown on freedom of expression and press freedom before it's too late?

 

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