Algeria hands activist 10 years in jail for 'inciting atheism'

It is the longest sentence given to a member of the Hirak anti-government movement

(FILES) A file photo taken on April 19, 2019 shows Algerians, waving national flags and carry anti corruption placards, marching during an anti government demonstration in the capital Algiers. Algeria is readying for a constitutional referendum that the establishment says will usher in a "New Republic" and boost freedoms, but the opposition dismisses it as window-dressing by a repressive regime. With a month to go before the November 1 referendum, many ordinary Algerians -- struggling in a deep economic crisis with soaring unemployment -- appear unaware of the technical details of what the government proposes.
 / AFP / -

An Algerian court on Thursday sentenced a key member of the Hirak anti-government protest movement to 10 years in prison for inciting atheism, a rights group said.

Yacine Mebarki was also found guilty of offending Islam and fined 10 million Algerian dinar ($77,400), said Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights.

Mr Salhi said he was shocked by such a heavy sentence for "a citizen who only expressed his opinion online".

The sentence was the longest given to a member of the Hirak, which led demonstrations that pushed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power last year.

At the start of the trial, the prosecution demanded that Mebarki, 52, was jailed for eight years.

But in a rare move the judge in the north-east city of Khenchela decided to add two more years to that term.

Mebarki denied any wrongdoing and would appeal, Mr Salhi said.

Mebarki was arrested on September 30 during a raid at his home.

According to a friend, the police found an old and faded copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped – considered to be an attack on Islam.

Mr Salhi said Mebarki was also convicted of inciting discrimination and hatred.

"It's a case of freedom of conscience and opinion," Mr Salhi said.

He called for the charges to be dropped.

The Hirak-led protests broke out in February last year and led to the resignation of Mr Bouteflika, whose plans to run for a fifth term sparked the demonstrations.

Protesters continued to demand wholesale political changes but demonstrations halted in March owing to restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, authorities cracked down on activists, journalists and government critics, with many convicted on various charges and jailed.

A total of 61 people are in prison for acts related to Hirak, according to CNLD, a rights group that lists prisoners of conscience in Algeria.

In a bid to satisfy the protest movement, Algeria launched on Wednesday a campaign for constitutional reforms that will be put to a referendum in November.

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