ALGERIA: Christian sentenced to five years in prison for blasphemy

An Algerian Christian has been sentenced to five years in prison – the maximum term – and heavily fined for blasphemy against Islam and its prophet. [Update September 2016: the sentence has been reduced on appeal to three years, and the fine has been dropped. The Algerian League for Human Rights says it will take the case to the Supreme Court.]

Slimane Bouhafs (49) was arrested on 31 July 2016 for posting a Facebook message about the light of Jesus overcoming the “lie” of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. He also published photos showing the execution of a civilian by an Islamist terrorist. Slimane was arrested near his house in Bousselam, Sátif province, in the Kabylie region of northeast Algeria. He was brought before the prosecution without access to a lawyer and was jailed in Sátif prison, where he began a hunger strike in protest at his arbitrary detention.

On 7 August, Slimane appeared before a judge in Sátif town (300km from Algiers, the capital) and was convicted of insulting Islam (the state religion, according to the constitution) and the Prophet Mohammad, a charge punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine of 50 000 – 100 000 Algerian Dinar (the equivalent of approximately €410 – €820). He was given the maximum sentence and the maximum fine.

The Vice-President of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, Said Salhi, denounced what he called “this attack” on the guarantees of freedom of conscience and worship enshrined in the constitution.

Slimane became a Christian in 1997 and was baptised in 2006. His daughter Afaf said he has always defended the interests of his country and is known for his commitment to democracy and religious freedom in all his writings published on his Facebook page. He belongs to a separatist group called the Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), and is chairman of the St Augustine Coordination of Christians in Algeria, which defends minority rights and freedom of religion. The heavy sentence is thought to be a way of silencing him because of his political activism.

The organisation Front Line Defenders has stated that it “strongly condemns the heavy sentencing of Slimane Bouhafs as it is believed to be solely related to his peaceful and legitimate work for the promotion and protection of freedom of conscience in Algeria“.

Slimane’s family members have denounced what they called a “sham” trial and say they are deeply concerned as he suffers from a chronic illness and his health has already deteriorated in prison. His daughter says he suffers from inflammatory rheumatism, which worsens under stress. “He needs to follow a special diet,” she said.

A source who wished to remain anonymous told World Watch Monitor that the maximum sentence was “severe in view of a rather minor offence“, adding that such comments on social media are common in Algeria and do not usually trigger the wrath of the authorities.

The President of the Protestant Church of Algeria says its lawyer will appeal the verdict.

The vast Kabylie region, which is about the size of Denmark, has a strong sense of regional identity and resists the control of the central government in Algiers. It is mainly Berber, while the rest of Algeria is mainly Arab, and is home to most of Algeria’s tiny but fast-growing Christian minority. The authorities regularly harass and even arrest MAK activists.

Kabylie has a history of harbouring armed groups, and the Algerian army regularly carries out searches in an effort to eradicate terrorism. The region’s forests and cave-riddled mountains provide cover for guerrillas: it was a refuge for fighters during the Algerian War of Independence against the French colonialists, and in the 1990s, during the Algerian Civil War, became a hideout for the Armed Islamic Group, which later became Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Read more about Algeria in Church in Chains’ Algeria Country Profile

(Front Line Defenders, World Watch Monitor)