Algeria: Prosecutor Demands 2-Year Sentence for Converts from Islam

Thursday, May 29, 2008

In separate case, Christian woman’s verdict delayed due to international pressure.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- A state prosecutor in western Algeria demanded two-year jail sentences and large fines for six Muslim converts to Christianity yesterday in one of two trials against Christians that have caught the north African nation’s attention in the past week.

The same court in Tiaret city yesterday delayed the verdict of a Christian woman facing three years in prison for “practicing non-Muslim religious rites without a license.”

Under intense scrutiny from Algerian and international observers, the Tiaret judge delayed Habiba Kouider’s ruling to ask for further investigation. The case gained notoriety last week when Algerian newspapers reported that court officials in the agricultural town mocked the Christian for her conversion and pressured her to return to Islam.

France’s State Secretary for human rights, Rama Yade, spoke out in support of Kouider on Sunday (May 25), calling the charges against her “sad and shocking,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Speaking to Algerian daily El Watan following yesterday’s hearing, Kouider’s defense lawyer said that international attention had caused the verdict to be delayed.

“The court wants to buy time and remove the pressure exerted on it,” said Khelloudja Khalfoun.

Plucking her off an inter-city bus outside of her home town of Tiaret on March 29, police found several Bibles and books on Christianity in Kouider’s hand bag that she said were for her personal use. Officials held the Christian woman for 24 hours and then brought her before a state prosecutor, who offered to drop charges if she reconverted to Islam. She refused.

At last week’s hearing, the state prosecutor claimed that Kouider had been carrying a dozen copies of the same Christian book, proof that she had been planning to distribute them.

Under Ordinance 06-03 passed in February 2006, distributing, printing or even storing materials with the purpose of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is punishable with up to five years in prison.

But Khalfoun, Kouider’s defense lawyer, argued that accusations of proselytism had nothing to do with the initial charge of “practicing non-Muslim religious rites without a license,” a charge that she claimed had no legal base.

Speaking to El Watan, Boudjemaa Ghechir of the Arab League of Human Rights agreed with the defense lawyer’s assessment and called for Kouider’s case to be dropped.

“There is absolutely no legal text which requires such an authorization [to practice religion],” Ghechir said in the May 25 article.

A New Charge

Khalfoun, a Tizi Ouzou-based human rights lawyer, is also representing six Muslim converts to Christianity on trial in Tiaret for proselytism and holding an illegal religious gathering.

A large contingent of journalists, as well as Islamists, attended their initial court hearing yesterday, one eyewitness told Compass.

Detained on May 9 while leaving a prayer meeting at the home of one of the men in Tiaret, the six converts were held for 24 hours and initially charged with “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims.” At yesterday’s hearing, the state prosecutor raised a second charge of illegally practicing non-Muslim worship and demanded two-year jail sentences and 500,000 dinar (US$8,145) fines for each suspect.

Ordinance 06-03 requires that religious services be held in specific locations intended exclusively for worship.

“How can six people shake the faith of 40 million unless the court is convinced that the faith of the 40 million is not based on strong foundations?” said Djillali Saibi, one of the Christians on trial, referring to Algeria’s majority-Muslim population. Christians, mostly converts, make up less than 1 percent of the country’s people.

Testifying before the Tiaret court yesterday, all six men denied that they had been distributing any religious materials.

“I had nothing on me except a CD of [U.S. cartoon] Tom and Jerry that I had bought for my daughter and a book on faith, a personal book,” one of the men told the court according to El Watan today. “If one accuses us of distributing documents they must have proof.”

The Christians said that they felt targeted by Algeria’s legal system.

“We want to say to our Muslim brothers and the state that we are Algerians like them and that we want to remain and live in Algeria,” Saibi told Compass.

But prosecution lawyers claimed that the six Christians had violated the law by holding collective worship in a home, an act illegal for both Muslims and Christians in Algeria.

“He is not allowed to just transform his residence into a place of collective exercise of worship,” the state prosecutor said, according to El Watan today. “This [prohibition] also is valid for Muslims.”

Defense lawyer Khalfoun challenged the prosecutor to stick to the original charge of distributing evangelistic literature, saying that the new arguments simply confused the case, El Watan reported.

A verdict on the Christians is scheduled to be delivered on Tuesday (June 3).

Anti-Christian Sentiment

Over the past six months observers have reported a wave of church closures and religion-based court cases against Christians in Algeria. The incidents have been accompanied by a barrage of negative local press articles warning that Christian evangelism posed a threat to the unity of the country.

But following Kouider’s court hearing last week, a number of papers openly criticized the government for its role in stirring up anti-Christian sentiment.

“The lawsuit of Habiba K. has revealed the humiliating persecution for the offense of worship,” an El Watan columnist wrote yesterday.

“Open Season on Christian Converts,” read the headline of a May 26 article in daily Le Soir that listed a number of actions taken against Algerian Christians in recent months. The article also slammed Algeria’s prime minister for public comments he made last week that appeared to support implementing sharia, Islamic law.

“Suggesting adopting sharia for Algeria is his way, also, of responding to Habiba’s case,” one writer for the daily Le Matin noted on May 26. Most interpretations of Islamic law outlaw proselytism of Muslims and conversion away from Islam.

Responding to the growing local and international criticism, Interior Minister Yazid Zarhouni expressed his support for the state prosecutor in Kouider’s case, daily El Khabar reported on Monday (May 26).

Speaking from Tiaret at the installation of a new provincial governor, Zarhouni said that a number of both Christian and Muslim places of worship had been closed around the country.

“We closed the Christian places of worship which did not have authorization because the sermons were given by unqualified people,” Zerhouni said, according to daily L’Expression.

Copyright © 2008 Compass Direct News