A supporter of Algeria’s Hirak protest movement was sentenced to three years in jail Monday for satirical social media posts mocking the government and religion, sparking condemnation from rights groups.
Walid Kechida, 25, was accused of insulting President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and “offending the precepts” of Islam in internet memes and other online posts, said Kaci Tansaout, from the CNLD prisoners’ rights group.
“Walid Kechida is sadly sentenced to three years in prison with a fine,” Tansaout said, adding that lawyers would appeal.
“We had expected his release” from jail, he added.
Lawyer Moumen Chadi confirmed the sentence.
Human Rights Watch and the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH) deplored the sentence.
“Algeria’s government continues its vengeance against #Hirak activists,,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, HRW’s advocacy and communications director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Administrator of a Facebook satirical page, Walid Kechida, in prison since April 2020, was sentenced to 3 years today for… memes!,” he tweeted.
LADDH vice president Said Salhi accused the government of using its authority to make a “muscled decision ahead of legislative elections” due to take place later this year.
The sentencing of Kechida “is a signal” of what’s to come, he said.
The public prosecutor in Algeria’s northeastern Setif province had called for a five-year sentence, and Kechida has already spent eight months in detention awaiting trial.
Algerian authorities have arrested and prosecuted several activists in a bid to neutralise the Hirak protest movement.
Also on Monday, Toufik Hassani, a former policeman who joined the protests, was sentenced to six months in jail for “undermining the integrity of the national territory through publications on social networks”, according to the CNLD.
He is already serving two years in prison after being convicted of “threatening police agents” and “divulging professional secrets on Facebook” in September last year.
Hassani had decried police repression of a student march in the capital Algiers in October 2019.
– Crackdown –
The CNLD says over 90 people, including activists, social media users and journalists, are currently in custody in connection with the country’s anti-government protest movement or individual liberties — mostly for dissenting social media posts.
Kechida, who administered the “Hirak Memes” Facebook page, is the latest Algerian targeted by authorities this year in a crackdown against freedom of expression.
Mustapha Bendjama, chief editor of the Le Provincial newspaper, is facing four separate legal proceedings over material he posted online.
Three Algerians — Mohamed Tadjadit, Noureddine Khimoud and Abdelhak Ben Rahmani — have been on hunger strike for more than a week to protest their detention.
They too face a long list of charges, including undermining national security, for videos and statements posted online.
Tebboune last week signed Algeria’s new constitution into law, a change the government hopes will turn the page on the long-running Hirak protest movement.
The movement first launched vast street demonstrations in early 2019 to oppose then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office.
Bouteflika resigned in April that year, but protesters kept up the pressure, demanding a full overhaul of the ruling system in place since the North African nation’s 1962 independence from France.
However, social distancing necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic meant that protesters had to halt their street rallies early last year.
A November referendum to approve the constitutional changes received the backing of less than 15 percent of the electorate, in a vote overshadowed by the pandemic and Hirak calls for a boycott