Call to release Algerian blogger imprisoned for interviewing Israeli MF

Human Rights Watch urged Algeria on Sunday to release a blogger who launched a hunger strike on July 8 to protest his seven-year prison term he received after interviewing an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.

“Touati should not be in prison, and he certainly should not die in prison because his rights have been violated. Algeria should release Touati immediately and carry out its commitment to respect freedom of speech”, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

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“Seven years in prison for a citizen journalist [Merzoug Touati] based on his peaceful expression and reporting is a damning indictment on the state of freedom of speech in Algeria,” said Whitson.

According to HRW, on January 8, 2017 Touati ”uploaded to Youtube his interview with a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, who denied any Israeli involvement in the Arab Spring or in social protests in Algeria, and affirmed that Israel had had diplomatic representation in Algeria until 2006.”

HRW noted that “The interview was newsworthy in that Algeria’s then-housing and urbanization minister, Abdelmajid Tebboune, had a few days earlier declared that ‘foreign hands,’ through websites and Facebook accounts, including in Israel, were behind the finance law protests.”

Algerian authorities arrested Touati on January 18, 2017. The government charged him with “incitement to take up arms against the authority of the state,” “incitement to a gathering of an unarmed nature,” “intelligence with a foreign country aiming at harming ,” and “incitement to gatherings and sit-ins in public spaces.”

Salah Dabouz, Touati’s lawyer, told HRW that during his last visit with his client, on July 16, Touati appeared weak. “He told me he is protesting a trial he sees as political, and a judgment that is unjust,” Dabouz said.

HRW noted that Algerian authorities cracked down on Touati for a “post he published on January 2, 2017 on his blog Al Hogra, since shut down.”

“Touati said the people of the city of Bejaia, where he lives, should protest against a new finance law that took effect on January 1 of that year and which imposed many tax increases, “wrote HRW.

Algeria agreed to respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression under article 19, according to HRW.

Algeria’s largely one-party and military government has faced criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Committee for violations of freedom of expression.