Detained journalist Mohamed Tamalt dies in Algeria

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Mohamed Tamalt, a journalist imprisoned in Algeria for insulting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, died in hospital while serving his sentence. His lawyer on Sunday announced his death.

The city of Algiers, from file.
Image: Damien Boilley.

Tamalt, 42, lived in England, basing himself in London, and had UK-Algerian dual citizenship. He was arrested on June 27 near his parents' Algiers home after writing a poem on Facebook. Human Rights Watch said he began a hunger strike immediately. On June 11 he was fined 200,000 dinars (£1,400; US$1,800) and imprisoned for two years. This was upheld on appeal.

Tamalt fell into a coma which his lawyer, Amine Sidhoum, said lasted three months. He was undergoing treatment in Bab el-Oued hospital. Human Rights Watch had asked Algeria to release him when reportedly in critical condition in August.

Reporters Without Borders called Tamalt's death a shocking blow to Algerian free speech. "Why was there such a conviction just for words on Facebook which did no harm to anyone?" asked the organisation's North African head, Yasmine Kacha. Amnesty International have sought an "independent and transparent investigation into the circumstances" of Tamalt's death.

Tamalt was convicted of insulting President Bouteflika and defaming a public organisation, both breaches of the national Penal Code. Sidhoum told al-Jazeera the occasion marked "the first time since Algeria gained its independence from France that a journalist died in jail because of what he wrote on the Internet." He also said he was "really sad at the lack of support from his fellow Algerian journalists, who left him and abandoned him."

Why was there such a conviction just for words on Facebook which did no harm to anyone?

—Yasmine Kacha, Reporters Without Borders

Sidhoum said Tamalt's funeral was scheduled for Monday. Afterwards, "we, his family and lawyers, will figure out in the following days what we can do to find out exactly what happened to him in prison." His family have alleged he was mistreated in prison and denied visits. Justice Minister Tayeb Louh in October promised investigations would uncover any wrongdoing by authorities.

The prison service said Tamalt was found to be suffering pneumonia, beginning treatment on December 4. It said this killed him. Amnesty spokesperson Brahim Mahdid in remarks to al-Jazeera said "we can't say for sure what the cause of his death was[...] Nor are we sure if Tamalt received the proper treatment during his hunger strike." Mahdid said local media were "facing increasing pressure" and "a hostile environment."