Algerian journalist Mustapha Bendjama arbitrarily detained since February 2023

Algerian journalist Mustapha Bendjama arbitrarily detained since February 2023

Mustapha Bendjama is a journalist and editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Le Provincial. In recent years, Bendjama had been summoned by the police dozens of times and prosecuted several times for his work as a journalist and his critical stances. He was arrested on February 8, 2023, at his workplace in Annaba. He was later charged with “criminal organisation to commit the crime of illegal immigration” and “smuggling of migrants within the framework of an organised criminal gang”. These charges relate to the departure of activist Amira Bouraoui from Algeria to France via Tunisia. In a second case, he is accused of having “receiving funding from foreign or domestic institutions in order to commit public order offenses” and of having “publishing on electronic networks or via technological media tools information that is partly or entirely classified as secret”. In this case, Bendjama was sentenced to 2 years in prison by the Constantine Court on August 29, 2023. His sentenced was reduced on appeal. In the “Amira Bouraoui case”, he was sentenced to 6 months in prison.

Mustapha Bendjama is a journalist and editor-in-chief of the Annaba-based newspaper Le Provincial. In recent years, he had been summoned by the police dozens of times and prosecuted several times for his work as a journalist and his critical stances towards the authorities. Since November 2019, he has been subject to a travel ban. Although the travel ban was overturned by an Algerian court in April 2022, the police have continued to apply it arbitrarily.

He was first arrested on June 28, 2019, while covering a demonstration in the city of Annaba. He was released the same day after suffering ill-treatment.

On October 23, 2019, Bendjama was arrested after sharing a leaked police report on Facebook describing him and another journalist as “subversives”. While he was released shortly after, he was charged with sharing a “publication detrimental to the national interest”. On January 10, 2021, the Annaba Correctional Court sentenced him to a two-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 20,000 dinars. This sentence was confirmed on appeal on June 27, 2021.

Bendjama was later arrested on December 3, 2019, near the newspaper's premises, where a demonstration against Ali Benflis' rally in Annaba was taking place. The rally took place in the context of the campaign for the 2019 Algerian presidential election. Although he denied having taken part in the rally in question, he was charged with “incitement to unarmed assembly”, “opposition to the electoral process” and “opposition through a rally to actions authorised by the public authorities”. He was nevertheless released and placed under judicial supervision. Following a judgment handed down by the Annaba court on February 2, 2020, he was acquitted. The acquittal was confirmed on appeal on November 18, 2020.

Bendjama was indicted in another case for “defamation and slander” and “contempt of a constituted body” following a complaint lodged by the Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN).This was due to him publishing  a Facebook post in July 2019 about the closure of roads leading to the French Consulate in Annaba on the occasion of the French national holiday of July 14. He was tried by the Annaba Court of First Instance, which acquitted him on February 22, 2021. The acquittal was confirmed on appeal on July 18, 2021.

The authorities also accused Bendjama of “harming the national interest” and “defamation” following a complaint lodged against him by the Wali (governor) of Annaba. These charges relate to a video he shared on Facebook in March 2020 about the public discontent caused by the organisation of a wedding during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In this case, he was sentenced in absentia to one year's imprisonment and 200,000 dinars on December 20, 2021. Bendjama should have been retried before the Annaba court on June 11, 2023 after successfully challenging the trial. However, the hearing was postponed several times. The trial finally took place on July 9, 2023, and the verdict was announced on July 16, 2023. He was fined 30,000 dinars and ordered to pay 50,000 dinars in compensation to the plaintiff. The content of the video published in March 2020 was widely discussed during the hearings.

More recently, on February 8, 2023, Bendjama was arrested in connection with the “Amira Bouraoui case”. Active since 2011, Bouraoui is a Franco-Algerian activist who was convicted in 2021 of “insulting the president” and “offending Islam.” She arrived in France on February 6, 2023, having left Algeria via its land border with Tunisia, where she escaped extradition. Her departure from Tunisia triggered a major diplomatic incident between France and Algeria. In this context, the Algerian authorities arrested at least five people for allegedly assisting in Bouraoui's departure, including Bendjama.

Bendjama was arrested at his workplace by the gendarmerie on February 8, 2023. He was then held in police custody until February 19, 2023. He was then charged with “criminal organisation to commit the crime of illegal immigration,” and “smuggling of migrants within the framework of an organised criminal gang,” under articles 176, 177 and 303 bis of the Penal Code.

He was also accused of “receiving funding from foreign or domestic institutions in order to commit public order offenses,” under article 95 bis of the Penal Code and “publishing on electronic networks or via technological media tools information that is partly or entirely classified as secret,” under article 38 of ordinance 09-21 on data and administrative documents protection.

After he was presented before the investigative judge of the specialised section of the Constantine court, Bendjama was remanded in custody at Constantine's Abdelhamid Boussouf prison on February 19, 2023.

Bendjama is seemingly being prosecuted not for acts he has allegedly committed, but in retaliation for acts allegedly committed by a third party;the Algerian authorities seem to be invoking the so-called Bouraoui case to justify repressive action.

Believing that the judicial proceedings against Bendjama, including those initiated following his arrest on February 8, 2023, are directly linked to the exercise of his right to freedom of expression protected by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), MENA Rights Group requested the intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression on July 19, 2023.

On August 29, 2023, the Constantine Court sentenced Mustapha Bendjama to 2 years in prison, alongside Algerian-Canadian researcher Raouf Farrah.

Believing that the detentions of Bendjama is arbitrary, MENA Rights Group sent a joint Request for Opinion to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on October 23, 2023. 

On October 26, 2023, the Constantine court sentenced Bendjama and Farrah on appeal to 8 months' imprisonment and one year's probation. Having served his sentence, Farrah was immediately released. However, Bendjama remains in prison while awaiting his trial for the Bouraoui case.

On November 7, 2023, the Specialised Division of the Constantince court sentenced Bendjama to 6 months’ imprisonment. Given that the length of his pretrial detention exceeds this sentence, he should have been released. However, the judgement of the Specialised Division of the Court does not provide for his release.

Timeline

November 7, 2023: Mustapha Bendjama is sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment for the “Amira Bouraoui case”.
October 26, 2023: The Constantine court sentences Mustapha Bendjama on appeal to 8 months' imprisonment and one year’s probation.
October 23, 2023: MENA Rights Group sends a Request for Opinion at the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for Mustapha Bendjama.
August 29, 2023: The Constantine Court sentences Bendjama to 2 years in prison.
July 19, 2023: MENA Rights Group sends an urgent appeal to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression concerning the situation of Mustapha Bendjama.
July 16, 2023: Accused of “harming the national interest” and “defamation”, Bendjama is fined 30,000 dinars and ordered to pay 50,000 dinars in compensation for publishing a video in March 2020 about the public discontent caused by the organisation of a wedding in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.
February 19, 2023: Bendjama is placed in pretrial detention.
February 8, 2023: Bendjama is arrested by the gendarmerie.
July 18, 2021: After being charged with “defamation and slander” and “insulting a state constituent body” following a complaint lodged by the Direction générale de la Sûreté nationale (DGSN) for a Facebook post , Bendjama is acquitted on appeal.
June 27, 2021: Bendjama is sentenced on appeal to a two-month suspended prison sentence for “publication detrimental to the national interest” after sharing a police report describing him and another journalist as “subversives”.
November 18, 2020: Bendjama is charged with “inciting an unarmed gathering”, “obstructing the electoral process” and “obstructing actions authorised by the public authorities by means of a gathering” for having been near a demonstration in the context of the 2019 presidential campaign. He is acquitted on appeal.
November 2019 - October 2022: Bendjama is subjected to a travel ban.

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