Bouhafs' family said seeking a presidential pardon is a 'last resort and the only possible solution to set him free'.Bouhafs’ family said seeking a presidential pardon is a ‘last resort and the only possible solution to set him free’.World Watch Monitor

Protesters in Algeria have called for the release of Slimane Bouhafs, an evangelical Christian jailed for three years in September for “insulting Islam and the prophet Mohammed” in his social media posts.

A crowd gathered in the northern city of Tizi Ouzou last weekend (29 Oct) lobbied for Bouhafs to be allowed access to medical treatment, amid concerns that his health is rapidly deteriorating in prison.

They also called for a change to the law that punishes anyone deemed to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad or “denigrated the dogma or precepts of Islam”.

The organisers, a civil society group, vowed to continue protests in other regions of the country.
Bouhafs was recently moved from a jail in the northern city of Setif to another 75 miles east in the city of Constantine.

The civil society group described his transfer as “an arbitrary decision … to take him further away from his family”.

Bouhafs’ daughter Thilleli said in a post on Facebook that her father had lost half his body weight in the two months he had so far spent incarcerated.

“My father’s inflammatory rheumatism, which can only be treated with a specific diet which is impossible to get in prison, is taking a terrible toll on him,” she said.

Last month Bouhafs’ family appealed to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a pardon.

Bouhafs, who converted to Christianity in 1997, has been a well-known social activist in his local area of Kabylie, a Berber region in the predominantly Arab country.

Previous update (19 Oct.):

The family of imprisoned Algerian Christian Slimane Bouhafs has appealed to the Algerian President for a pardon, after he was convicted of “insulting Islam and the prophet Mohammed” in posts he made on social media.

Bouhafs, who converted to Christianity in 1997, was sentenced to three years imprisonment on 6 September.

During a press conference hosted by the Algerian League of Human Rights (LADDH), in the city of Béjaïa in the Kabylie region, Bouhafs’ daughter, Thilleli, said: “We have decided to seek a presidential pardon, instead of appealing to the Supreme Court. This is our last resort and the only possible solution to set my father free.”

She added that the family rejects the verdict of the judge.

Bouhafs could have opted for an appeal to the Supreme Court, but an LADDH spokesman ruled out this option because it “would take much time”, while Bouhafs is said to be suffering ill health.
“My father is in a critical condition because of his illness. He suffers from inflammatory rheumatism, and needs a specific diet which is impossible to get in prison. He drinks only coffee and has lost a lot of weight in this short time since his detention,” said Thilleli Bouhafs.

She stressed that her father had only shared someone else’s posts on Facebook, adding: “I wonder why there is this rage against my father, who did not have a high profile on Facebook.”

According to LADDH vice-president Said Salhi, the verdict “is part of an escalation” and is a result of “abusive” use of article 144 (bis) of the Algerian law. He called for a change of this legislation and criticised “the policy of double standards” in Algerian justice, citing various cases of arrests of non-fasters during Ramadan in recent years. Some were soon released, under pressure from local communities, while others – who didn’t have this support in their respective regions – were brought to court and ended up in jail.

Kabylie is the Berber region in Algeria, where the church has grown significantly in recent decades. Bouhafs’ conviction could be seen as a means of silencing him because of his political activism. He belongs to a movement seeking the self-determination of Kabylie (known as MAK), a group not tolerated by the authorities. MAK activists are regularly harassed and arrested. Mainly populated by Berbers – while the rest of Algeria is predominantly Arab – the Kabylie region has always had a tumultuous relationship with the central government in Algiers.

Previous update (7 Sep.):

After an appeal, Algerian Christian Slimane Bouhafs has had his five-year jail sentence for committing blasphemy against Islam and its prophet on social media reduced to three years. A fine of 100,000 dinars (US$900) was also dropped.

Bouhafs, 49, had appealed against the five-year sentence, which was the maximum possible punishment he could have faced, saying he had only spoken out against radical Islam and terrorism.

The Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH), working on behalf of Bouhafs and the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), called the decision to keep Bouhafs in jail “amazing and offensive” and said it will now take his case to the Supreme Court.

“Although the sentence has been reduced, LADDH considers imprisonment for this accusations a serious precedent and this is inconsistent with the Constitution and the universal declaration of human rights,” wrote Saïd Salhi, LADDH vice president, in a statement.

Salhi added that his organisation “will continue to follow and explore all ways and legal means to free Bouhafs, especially because his health condition doesn’t allow him stay there; this imprisonment is putting his life in danger”.

Original article (9 Aug.):

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.