Algerian reporter sentenced to 3 years over protest coverage

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — An Algerian journalist who played a prominent role in covering the country’s pro-democracy movement last year was sentenced Monday to three years in prison for inciting unauthorized demonstrations and attacking national unity.

Dozens of journalists and activists in the Hirak movement protested outside the courthouse, demanding freedom for Khaled Drareni. His supporters said the verdict was reminiscent of the tightly controlled era of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was pushed out by the mass demonstrations and whose successor promised a more democratic, open leadership.

Drareni’s arrest in March drew widespread condemnation among protesters and media watchdog groups such as Reporters Without Borders. Drareni worked with the organization, led the news website Casbah Tribune and drew a widespread social media following for his coverage of protests that helped bring down Bouteflika.

Along with sending him to prison, the court in Sidi M’Hamed ordered the journalist to pay a fine of 50,000 dinars (about $400), according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees.

During the trial, which was held by videoconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Drareni denied wrongdoing and said he was only working as an independent journalist and exercising his right to inform.

Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, dismissed Monday’s verdict as “arbitrary and absurd” and called it “judicial persecution against a journalist who is the honor of his country,” urging global mobilization in his support. At least one other Algerian journalist is currently awaiting trial, according to RSF.

Mass demonstrations brought down Algeria’s long-time president and his entourage in April 2019. While a new president was elected in December, the pro-democracy movement is seeking deeper change in a nation whose rulers have been shadowed by the army since it gained independence from France in 1962.

In their case against Drareni, prosecutors noted a Facebook post in which Drareni said the Algerian political system hadn’t changed since the election in December of Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president, and that Drareni shared a call by multiple political parties for a general strike.

“Khaled Drareni was only doing his job of informing citizens. He did not commit a crime,” one of his lawyers, Fetta Sadat, told The Associated Press. The verdict “is proof that Algerian justice is not free but an instrument in the hands of power that can be used to intimidate Algerians.”

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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