Document - Algeria: Drop charges against men accused of breaking Ramadan fast
AI Index: MDE 28/011/2010
Date: 1 October 2010
Algeria: Drop charges against men accused of breaking Ramadan fast
Ahead of the 5 October court decision of two men accused of breaking fast in Ramadan, Amnesty International calls on the Algerian authorities to drop the charges and uphold the right to freedom of conscience and religion. The organization also calls on the authorities to repeal vaguely-worded provisions of the Algerian Penal Code which are used to prosecute those who do not conform to the religious and social norms in Algeria.
Hocine Hocini and Salem Fellak appeared before Ain El-Hammam court in Tizi Ouzou province, on 21 September 2010. The two men were charged with “denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam” under Article 144 bis (2) of the Algerian Penal Code. The court decision is expected on 5 October 2010. If convicted, they may face a sentence of three to five years imprisonment and/or a fine.
Hocine Hocini and Salem Fellak converted to Christianity in 2002 and 2009 respectively. They told Amnesty International that on 12 August 2010 they were discretely having their lunch on the second floor of a building in a construction site where they worked, when they were arrested by four police officers. They were taken to a police station in Ain El-Hammam, where they were interrogated about breaking the Ramadan fast. An hour later, they were brought before the Deputy Prosecutor of the Republic. Both men told the Deputy Prosecutor that they were Christian and therefore do not observe Ramadan. They reported that the Deputy Prosecutor stated that Algeria is a Muslim country, and that Christians should go to Europe and therefore questioned how the men could be both Algerian and Christian at the same time.
The opening of the trial of the men on 21 September sparked a large gathering of people in Ain El-Hammam, during the court hearing to protest the prosecution of the men. Several Algerian NGOs, including the Algerian League for the Defence Human Rights (Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme, LADDH), human rights activists, lawyers and journalists attended the court hearing.
On 22 September 2010, when asked by journalists about the arrest and trial of people accused of breaking the Ramadan fast, Minister of Justice Tayeb Belaiz declined to comment saying that he did not wish to influence the outcome of the trial.
The Algerian Constitution states that “Freedom of creed and opinion is inviolable”. Other legislation in Algeria also protects the right to freedom of religion. For instance, the Ordinance 06-03 of 2006 regulating religious faiths other than Islam set out the State’s obligation to guarantee tolerance and respect of other religions.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Algeria is under the obligation to respect the right to freedom of conscience and religion. Article 18 of the ICCPR in particular states that “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”.
The UN Human Rights Committee, the body which oversees states’ compliance with the ICCPR, in its General Comment 22 has specified that: “...the freedom to ‘have or to adopt’ a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one's religion or belief.” With regard to the prohibition of coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, the Committee has stated that this includes [a prohibition on] the use of threat of physical forceor penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to religious beliefs.
It is not clear whether the arrest of Hocine Hocini and Salem Fellak followed their discovery by police or a complaint by neighbours. According to their lawyer, the arrest of Hocine Hocini and Salem Fellak was marked by irregularities, including the absence of an arrest warrant, as required by Algerian law.
Amnesty International is also concerned that the arrests may violate the men’s right to privacy, which is guaranteed in the Algerian Constitution. Article 39 of the Constitution stipulates: “The private life and the honour of the citizen are inviolable and protected by law.” As a state party to the ICCPR, Algeria is also under international obligation to protect the right to privacy. Article 17 states “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy”.
Amnesty International is also concerned that vaguely worded provisions of the Penal Code are used in breach of the principle of legality, which requires that a criminal offence is defined in a clear and precise manner.
Amnesty International urges the Algerian authorities to drop all charges against Hocine Hocini and Salem Fellak and any others prosecuted as a result of breaking fast in Ramadan and guarantee their freedom of conscience, religion and belief, as well as their right to privacy. The Algerian authorities should not impose criminal sanctions on anyone in an effort to compel them to adhere to a religious belief.
According to information available to Amnesty International, others are also facing charges of breaking the Ramadan fast. Ten people in Ouzlaguen in the Tizi Ouzou province were due to appear in court on 6 September 2010. The hearing was adjourned to 8 November 2010. They were reportedly arrested and interrogated by the police before being brought before the general prosecutor. Nine were released that same day. However, the owner of the restaurant where the breaking of the fast took place was held for seven days before being released. They are all awaiting trial. They were charged under Article 144 bis (2) of the Algerian Penal Code.
In a separate incident, Hawag Idir, Makrani Nasser, Raid Abdel Nour and Mahmoud Yahou appeared in front of a court in the town of Al-Arba’a Nath Irathen, Tizi Ouzou province on 26 September 2010. The hearing was adjourned to 10 October 2010. The four men are facing charges of “practicing religious rites without authorization” under Article 13 of Ordinance 06-03 of 2006 regulating religious faiths other than Islam. They face up to three years in prison and fines if convicted.
In a similar case in 2008, 10 men were charged with “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam” and were tried in two separate cases in September 2008 for publicly breaking fast during the month of Ramadan. Six were acquitted on appeal, after they were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and heavy fines by a lower court in Biskra. The others were sentenced to three years in prison and fined by a court in Beir Mourad Rais. The sentence was reduced to a two-month suspended prison term on appeal in November 2008.