Rape, murder of Algerian woman spark calls for death penalty

Activists counted 38 “femicides” in Algeria so far this year, 60 in 2019
Friday 09/10/2020
Algerian activists rally in the capital Algiers on October 8, to denounce the brutal murder of a 19-year-old woman and those of 38 other women killed this year. (AFP)
Algerian activists rally in the capital Algiers on October 8, to denounce the brutal murder of a 19-year-old woman and those of 38 other women killed this year. (AFP)

ALGIERS --The rape and murder in Algeria of a young woman sparked cries for action on gender-based violence in the North African country and calls to bring back capital punishment.

The body of the woman, identified as 19-year-old Chaima, was found in early October at a deserted petrol station in Thenia, 80km east of the capital Algiers.

She had been beaten, raped and burned alive, local media reported.

The suspect, who has reportedly confessed, is being charged with “rape and voluntary homicide with premeditation and ambush, using torture.”

Chaima’s mother said the man had been an acquaintance of the family, against whom the young woman had previously pressed rape charges in 2016.

The killing set off a wave of outrage on social media in Algeria, where internet users condemned the “heinous” crime and demanded justice, with many calling for the death penalty, under moratorium in the country since 1993.

A message shared widely online reads: “I am Chaima, I was raped in 2016 and I had the courage to press charges in a conservative society. I am still Chaima, it is 2020 and I have again been raped by the same rapist, who stabbed and burned me. #IAmChaima.”

 ‘Femicides’ 

The Free and Independent Women’s Collective of Bejaia, a city on Algeria’s north-east coast, said Chaima’s killing “adds to the long list of femicides, which continues to grow in the face of complicit silence, the justification of violence and the absence of real measures.”

To “break the silence,” several feminist collectives across the country held demonstrations Thursday against femicide, the gender-related killing of women and girls.

In Algiers, the Algerian Women for Change Toward Equality group organised a rally to “denounce the heinous crimes” that led to Chaima’s death and those of the 38 women killed this year.

“We are angry for our murdered sisters” and “those who stay silent are just as responsible,” shouted some 100 protesters who had gathered in central Algiers before being dispersed by the police.

An Algerian activist holds a placard reading in French “we dream of a country where women who talk about rape are heard more than men who talk about veil” during a rally in the capital Algiers on October 8. (AFP)
An Algerian activist holds a placard reading in French “we dream of a country where women who talk about rape are heard more than men who talk about veil” during a rally in the capital Algiers on October 8. (AFP)

One woman held a sign reading in French: “We dream of a country where women who talk about rape are heard more than men who talk about the veil.”

In the north-western city of Oran, protests were quickly shut down by the police and 20 people were arrested before being released, prisoners’ rights group CNLD said.

Meanwhile, the civil defence forces said in a statement Thursday that the charred body of a woman in her 30s had been found in a forest in the eastern region of Setif. There were no further details.

Some accused the justice system of not doing enough to protect women and condemned a culture of victim-blaming.

“Almost every week we’re seeing cases of women and children being abducted, raped or killed,” said Sihem Hammache, an Algerian lawyer and member of Wassila, an organisation that helps women and children who are victims of violence.

“When (her attacker) was released from prison she was not protected. It’s as though he had a blank slate, as though he had not done anything wrong, and this led to intense anger,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Rape is punishable by five to 10 years in prison in Algeria, or up to 20 years if it is committed against a minor, but the law allows rapists to evade punishment if they marry their victims.

Women’s rights campaigners have said convictions are difficult to obtain and that poverty and a culture of shame often discourage victims from coming forward.

“It’s the societal factors that obstruct justice more than the legal mechanism, but long legal proceedings can also exhaust already exhausted women,” said Hammache.

 Death penalty 

Chaima’s mother has addressed Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune and demanded the execution of the perpetrator, in a video that circulated online.

Many Algerians also took to social media in support of reinstating the death penalty.

“Execution should be applied to the killer, to be an example for all those who think of doing the same thing,” one Twitter user wrote.

Another said: “We must open the debate on the death penalty, the monster who killed her has no place in society or in prison.”

But others in the country rejected execution as the best way to deter femicide.

Femicides Algeria, a group that tracks such homicides, said: “It is not through the death penalty that we will give her (Chaima) justice, it is rather the law that must be changed and applied.”

The activists have counted 38 femicides in Algeria so far this year.

They recorded 60 in 2019, noting on their website that with so many cases going unreported or unconfirmed, the actual number “is much higher.”

Almost 6,000 cases of violence against women were recorded in 2019, according to police figures, but women’s rights campaigners say the true figure is likely higher as victims are often reluctant to report such crimes due to the stigma they carry.

Hassina Oussedik, director for Amnesty International in Algeria, told AFP the country needed to “change mentalities and the judicial system for the psychological and legal care of victims, launch national awareness campaigns, open shelters and train the various institutions.”

“The death penalty is not a deterrent,” she said.

“It is discriminatory and does not protect the most vulnerable.”

A similar outcry was sparked in neighbouring Tunisia last month after thirty-year-old Rahma Lahmar was raped and murdered on her way home from work in the Tunis suburbs. Tunisian President Kais Saied backed calls for authorities to again carry out the death penalty, which has been put on hold in the country for nearly three decades.

Rights groups protested Saied’s support for capital punishment.