TIZI-OUZOU, Algeria (Morning Star News) – A judge in Algeria has reduced from five years to one year a prison sentence for a Christian convicted of offending Islam with cartoons on his Facebook page.
Samir Chamek, a 33-year-old theater actor in Algeria’s northern area of Wilaya de Bouira, had been sentenced to five years and a fine of 100,000 Algerian dinars (US$900) last year under Article 144 of the country’s 2006 law outlawing any “writing, drawing, statement or any other means” that denigrates Muhammad or the precepts of Islam. Cartoons of the prophet of Islam published elsewhere had been shared on his Facebook page.
Chamek told Morning Star News that the judicial process was inadequate. After a five-hour interrogation by police about his Facebook account, he received a summons to appear before a judge, who asked him the same questions he had answered at the Wilaya de Bouira police station.
“I had just been tried without knowing it,” Chamek said. “The judge of the court, in agreement with the attorney general, condemned me in my absence to five years in prison and to pay a fine of 100,000 Algerian dinars, accusing me of having infringed Islam and the person of the prophet.”
The married father of two children, a convert from Islam since 2005, said that previously, on July 3, 2016, a public prosecutor had initially condemned him to two years in prison and a fine of 50,000 Algerian dinars (US$450).
He said he did not understand why the interrogation by security forces in Wilaya de Bouira was so intense.
“The atmosphere inside made me think of the interrogations that one sees on films,” he said. “Even though I had no reason to be afraid, I was afraid. Yes, the atmosphere curled my hair and turned my insides.”
After ordering him to open his Facebook account on a police computer, the interrogating agent printed the entire contents – photos, links on koranic verses and other subjects, he said. The interrogation centered on koranic verses and “various caricatures, some about the prophet Muhammad,” Chamek said.
“It terrified me to have these caricatures and share them on Facebook – this while I had not invented any of it,” he said. “These publications have existed for a long time, and they are constantly going around the world on the Net. I explained to them that I had no particular interest in them, and if they were there, it was merely mere artistic curiosity, for I love all that is connected with art.”
He left after signing a document in Arabic without knowing its contents, Chamek said. “Did I have a choice?” he said. “I do not know.”
After receiving the five-year sentence, Chamek secured an attorney in Bouira. The subsequent appeal resulted in the Jan. 2 verdict reducing the sentence to one year. Believing Chamek should not be punished in any way based on freedom of speech and religion, the attorney is planning to appeal to the Algeria’s Supreme Court in Algiers.
On July 31, 2016, Slimane Bouhafs was also arrested under Article 144, in his case for posting a message on Facebook that characterized Islam as a “lie.” Bouhafs, who converted to Christianity from Islam in 1997 and was baptized in 2006, was sentenced on Aug. 7 to five years in prison and fined 100,000 Algerian Dinars (US$900). In September the sentence was reduced on appeal to three years, and the fine was dropped.
Article 144 has been condemned by numerous human rights organizations as a violation of international law. In its report, “Policing Belief,” pro-democracy group Freedom House said the article was commonly used to persecute Christian and allowed “police officials and judges to impose their own religious perspectives on society, and to give at least one version of Islamic practice the force of law.”
Islam is the state religion in the 97-percent Muslim country. The country grants the right to practice one’s religion as long as “public order and regulations” are respected, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is illegal, the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report notes.
Algeria ranked 36th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.