Algeria’s government released on Monday blogger Marzoug Touati, who had launched a hunger strike last July to protest his seven-year prison term he received after interviewing an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote on its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Twitter feed: “Today, blogger Marzoug Touati was freed after a criminal court sentenced him to two years in prison, which he already served, in addition to a three-year suspended sentence.”
CPJ MENA wrote that “Marzoug Touati was initially handed a 10 year prison sentence on charges of ‘intelligence with a foreign power’ after the blogger interviewed an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Today, he finally walks free.”
The release of the citizen journalist comes amid large protests against a fifth term of Algeria’s ailing 82-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is currently in Switzerland receiving medical attention for his condition following his stroke in 2013.
On the website of CPJ, the journalists’ organization wrote “Algerian security forces arrested the blogger at his Béjaïa home on January 18, 2017, according to his employer, lawyer, and news reports. According to the London-based regional daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, security forces interrogated Touati about a YouTube video he published on January 9, 2017, that shows an interview he conducted via teleconference with Hasan Kaabiah, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson.”
The CJP article stated “In that interview, the official said Israel has had a liaison office in Algiers since before 2000. Algeria and Israel do not have full diplomatic relations, and Algeria’s government is frequently critical of Israeli actions.”
According to CPJ, “During Touati’s interview with Kaabiah, the journalist asked for the official’s reaction to then Algerian Housing and Urban Development Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s allegations that planned protests against inflation were organized by foreign countries, including Israel, and that Israel was behind the Arab Spring.”
CPJ noted “Touati began serving his sentence at the Oued Ghir prison in Béjaïa. According to media reports and Amnesty International, Touati was held in solitary confinement and had to purchase his own food because authorities barely fed him. On November 3, 2018, Touati was transferred to a prison in the Algerian province of Bouira, according to news reports and a Facebook post by his lawyer, Salah Dabouz.”
CPJ reported that “The judge refused Touati’s multiple requests to summon witnesses who could have an integral role in the case, Dabouz wrote on Facebook. The judge also refused to release the journalist on a provisional basis, according to Dabouz.”
Algeria’s largely one-party and military government has faced criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Committee for violations of freedom of expression.
The release of Touati coincides with mass protests against a fifth term of Bouteflika, who just nominated for a fight term in office. Bouteflika has been in power since 1999 and seeks to secure a new five-year term until 2024.
In response to what could be a new Arab revolt in the region, Bouteflika proposed reforms to take the sting out of the demonstrations and growing unrest.
According to a letter from Bouteflika to the citizens of Algeria, he promises “an inclusive and independent national conference to discuss, elaborate and adopt political, institutional, economic and social reforms” and “implementation of public policies to ensure a fairer and equitable redistribution of national wealth and the elimination of social marginalization and exclusion.”
The Algerian strongman will also introduce a new constitution and reforms in the widely criticized election system. Lastly, he wrote that Algeria will conduct an “early presidential election in accordance with the timetable set by the independent national conference. I undertake not to be a candidate for this election which will ensure my succession in indisputable conditions of calm, freedom and transparency. The date of this early presidential election will be fixed by the national conference.”
It is unclear if Touati was released as part of Bouteflika’s reform plan.
The British Middle East expert Brian Whitaker wrote on his website al-bab.com “The Algerian system certainly needs reform and the letter’s proposal of a national dialogue would be an obvious way of starting the process.” He noted that “Given the current mood in Algeria, the public are unlikely to be persuaded of the regime’s sincerity without a concrete signal of its commitment to reform.”
Whitaker wrote “The problem, though, is that the concessions have been offered under duress and in exchange for Bouteflika’s reelection. The key question is whether the regime will be eager to implement them once Bouteflika has secured another term.”
“The letter does indicate that he will step down ‘early’ in his fifth term, but there’s no certainty it would happen.”
“We might also ask why, if the regime is serious about reform, Bouteflika needs be in charge of the process, especially when his capacity is limited by his poor state of health,” wrote Whitaker.