Algerian journalist dies in jail after hunger strike

December 18, 2016
Relatives and friends carry the body of British-Algerian journalist Mohamed Tamalt as mourners walk towards the cemetery during his funeral, on December 12th in Algiers. (AFP )

Tunis - Algerian journalist Mo­hamed Tamalt had posted online an 11-line poem criticising Alge­rian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika with a tagline that reads: “I will be in prison because of this text and I will be happy to pay that price.”

Tamalt died December 11th in prison after a hunger strike to pro­test his 2-year jail sentence handed down for insulting Bouteflika. He had been arrested near his parents’ house in Algiers on June 27th, Hu­man Rights Watch said.

After three months of rejecting attempts to feed him forcefully, Tamalt, 42, slipped into a coma. He was still in a coma when he died three months later.

The Algerian Journalists’ Union, local lawyers and human rights groups assailed the authorities for failing to prevent Tamalt’s death. They backed his family’s call for an independent investigation on the possible causes of his death, with his parents insisting that his “body has visible traces of violence”.

“Mohamed Tamalt was in a ter­rible health condition when he was transferred to hospital. His family pointed to stitches upon wounds on his head,” said the Algerian League of Human Rights in a state­ment.

“Beyond a debate about the eth­ics of journalism, nothing can jus­tify the indifference displayed by the authorities while the health of our colleague was deteriorating. That indifference killed him,” Alge­rian Journalists’ Union head Kamel Amrani said in a statement.

The prison administration de­fended its actions, saying that the “director of the prison and psychol­ogists visited him to convince [Ta­malt] to end his strike for no avail”.

Since 2002, Tamalt had been en­joying the free speech and press freedoms of Britain where he pub­lished an online journal called Assi­yak Alarabi (Arab Context) in which he pulled no punches on taking on the influential elite in Algeria.

Colleagues said a desire to see his mother after years away led him to return to Algeria in June.

A few hours after his arrival, Ta­malt wrote on his blog: “They did not arrest me at the airport but I don’t trust this regime. Two cars followed me as I was returning home.”

“My mother put me under house arrest. She did not want me to leave as she was afraid they would arrest me outside our house,” he added.

Algeria’s constitution, as revised last March, enshrines the right to freedom of expression in Article 48. It states that media freedom is not subject to prior censorship and that offences cannot be punished by prison. Article 50 states that the right to freedom of expression may not be used “to harm the dignity, freedom or rights of others”.

“No speech is safe in Algeria if a poem on Facebook can get you two years in prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch about Tamalt’s arrest,

“Jailing people for allegedly in­sulting or offending public officials is unjust and threatens anyone seeking to comment current af­fairs.”

Tamalt’s lawyer Amine Sidhoum told Al Jazeera that his death was “the first time since Algeria gained its independence from France that a journalist died in jail because of what he wrote on the internet.

“Mohamed’s death is a shame for our country,” Sidhoum said. “I am also really sad at the lack of support from his fellow Algerian journal­ists, who left him and abandoned him.”