As Ramadan begins, the daughter of an Algerian Christian serving three years in jail for “insulting Islam and the prophet Muhammad” on Facebook says she’s worried about the abuse her father could suffer after he was transferred to a third different prison.
Slimane Bouhafs, who is eight months into his sentence, is now in a prison in the coastal city of Jijel, 300km east of the capital, Algiers, having been transferred from Constantine, 150km south of Jijel.
This latest transfer took place despite the family’s request that he be moved to a prison in Béjaïa, in the Kabylie region where the family is from and where there is a relatively large Christian community.
“In Constantine Prison, my father suffered physical assaults and his psychological condition seriously deteriorated. At the approach of the month of Ramadan, his situation seriously worries us because he is a Christian.”
Both Constantine and Jijel, on the other hand, are known to have radical Islamist movements, and Bouhafs’ family fears that in Ramadan inter-religious tensions could increase.
“Since his arrival in Constantine Prison, my father suffered physical assaults and his psychological condition seriously deteriorated,” his daughter, Thilleli, told World Watch Monitor.
“At the approach of the month of Ramadan, my father’s situation seriously worries us, because he is a Christian, so we were anxiously awaiting news of where he would be transferred to. We were then surprised to learn that his transfer to Béjaïa was denied and that the authorities instead transferred him to Jijel.”
On 23 May, the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) organised a rally in support of Bouhafs, who converted to Christianity in 1997 and is a well-known social activist, in Béjaïa’s city centre.
A LADDH statement said the Algerian government had been responsible for “repeated violations of human rights and freedoms” and demanded the “the release of all detainees of political or religious opinions”.
After his previous transfer from a prison in Setif to Constantine, the LADDH criticised the move as an “an arbitrary decision … to take him further away from his family”.
At that time, Bouhafs’ daughter Thilleli said in a post on Facebook that her father had lost half his bodyweight during the two months he had 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.
Bouhafs was originally sentenced to five years, but this was reduced to three on appeal. His family appealed to the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for a pardon – Thilleli called it a “last resort and the only possible solution to set my father free”.
Thilleli also 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 was a result of “abusive” use of article 144 (bis) of the Algerian legal code. 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 Algeria’s Berber region, 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, while the Kabylie region has always had a tumultuous relationship with the central government in Algiers.
Kabylie is a vast region – similar in size to Denmark – in the north-east of the country, on the edge of the Mediterranean. Its landscape of forests and mountainous terrain, riddled with caves, has provided a fertile ground for guerrillas. In 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 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.
The Algerian army, which regularly carries out searches in Kabylie, has never been able to completely eradicate terrorism and banditry in the region.
AQIM was also strongly involved in the occupation in 2012 of northern Mali, along much of Algeria’s southern border. This month alone, apparently jihadist attacks in northern Mali have killed at least three, and wounded nine UN peace-keepers.