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For critics of Algeria's regime, a jail cell waits
© Harold Tribune | Mercredi 11 août 2004
New York, Suzanne RUTA
Until two months ago, Mohamed Benchicou was managing editor of a leading Algerian French-language daily, Le Matin, known for his stinging eloquence and exposés of corruption in high places. Now he is serving a two-year sentence for currency violations at El Harrach prison in Algiers, where he shares a stifling dormitory with 24 other convicted criminals and suffers from dangerously low blood pressure.
Benchicou entered prison June 14. Two weeks later, his newspaper's building was seized and sold at auction to pay back taxes. In July, the government printing office refused to print Le Matin until all outstanding bills had been paid in full. As of July 25, Le Matin and two other papers had disappeared from the news stands. Benchicou is the most visible victim of a crackdown on Algeria's independent press that has intensified since the re-election in April of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The currency charges on which Benchicou was convicted were trumped up, according to Ghania Hammadou, one of Le Matin's founders and its first editor in chief, who returned from Paris to take over the newspaper after Benchicou was jailed.
The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based group Committee to Protect Journalists agree with Hammadou, and have taken up his case. Benchicou's lawyers are expected to appeal the verdict against him in an Algiers court on Wednesday. Benchicou's real crime was good old-fashioned muckraking. During the presidential campaign this year he published a book about the regime called "Bouteflika: An Algerian Fraud." Benchicou is "a man of conviction and commitment," Hammadou said. "He knew there'd be a price to pay."
In the southern city of Djelfa, in the poorest part of Algeria, the journalist and human rights activist Ghoul Hafnaoui has been in jail since May 24 for daring to investigate the deaths of 13 newborn babies in a local maternity ward within a single month last spring. For his enterprising legwork, Hafnaoui was rewarded with a three-month sentence. Several other charges are pending. Last week Hafnaoui's sentence was extended a further two months after he sent a letter to his 10-year-old daughter outside authorized channels. In Oran, in western Algeria, the newspaper owner Ahmed Benaoum was jailed in late June for on charges of defaming the local government real estate office. The anti-defamation law passed in 2001 prescribes prison terms of up to a year for journalists guilty of defaming the president, Parliament, the courts or the military. But "local scoundrels," as Benchicou calls them, seem to make liberal use of it too.
Benchicou and a colleague are due back in court in November, on charges of defaming the Ministry of Defense, for having dared to report on torture and sexual humiliation of teenage boys arrested during demonstrations last May in the city of Tkout, in the Aures mountains, where a citizen's movement demanding local autonomy and clean government thrives despite heavy repression. "It's not just freedom of the press that is at stake, but all our freedoms," Hammadou said. "We have to win everything back. The right for unions to hold meetings, the rights of the citizens' movement leaders in jail. We're being crushed with a steamroller." But didn't the French government just offer the Algerian regime E1 billion ($1.22 billion) in credits and investments? She replied with startling passion, "Oh, for the French we're still just that race of natives." She surely knows, but is perhaps too polite to remind me, that the United States is just as eager as France to invest in Algeria. The American company Halliburton is building two hospitals for the Algerian military.
Benchicou's fellow prisoners in El Harrach call him the White Mandela, Hammadou said, because of his white hair and pale eyes, and because they know why he's in prison with them. The question now is, how to liberate him - and the disenfranchised millions of Algerians for whom he speaks - when not prevented from doing so.
Suzanne Ruta, author of "Stalin in the Bronx, and Other Stories," is a member of the writers' group PEN, whose Freedom to Write committee has adopted the cases of Mohamed Benchicou and Ghoul Hafnaoui.