Algerian men put to justice for breaking the Ramadan fast

Human rights groups bemoan religious oppression in the North African country; offenders face up to 2 years in jail.

Police in Algeria have detained ten men for allegedly eating in publicin violation of the sanctity of Ramadan.

Police picked up the young men in a restaurant in the province ofBejaya, east of the capital Algiers after neighbors complained of the allegedpublic desecration of the Islamic faith’s ban on eating during daylight in theholy month.


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The young men face up to two years in prison for the “crime” ifconvicted. Police reportedly held one man in jail and all face trial. Chargeswere presented against the group on Monday in a court in the town of Akbou. Thecourt delayed its verdict until early November.

While seemingly an isolated incident, it reflected a growing trend bygovernments to cater to devout public sentiment in the Muslim world. However,human rights’ groups have decried the move, saying the men had not committeeany crime and that observing the daylight fast during Ramadan was a “personalmatter.”

"There is no law in Algeria prohibiting eating on Ramadan, only onebanning 'mocking Ramadan'," said Moustafa Bouchachi, President of theAlgerian League for the Defense of Human Rights. "The prosecutor hasimplemented the law improperly, and therefore the last man still arrested inthe case was released yesterday."

Bouchachi told The Media Line that two years ago Algerian police hadarrested four young men on similar charges. They were subsequently released. Headded that people are sometimes arrested for eating in public places, butrarely for doing so in a closed restaurant.

"We believe that this lawsuit is unfounded," Bouchachi said."The Algerian constitution prescribes freedom of religion, so we thinkthis is an affront to people's basic right, which we condemn."

Bouchachi added that the arrests made Algeria look bad; presenting it asa country that does not respect human rights.

Mouloud Benkadoum, a lawyer representing the owner of the restaurant,said his client had not violated any laws.

"The police entered an establishment where the curtain wasclosed," he told the French language daily Al-Watan. "Myclient didn't serve anyone food. He was cleaning his restaurant and the cookingequipment in preparation for opening in the evening." 

Bankadoum claimed that his client was unjustly discriminated against.

"The large hotels serve alcohol and meals in broad daylight duringRamadan," he told reporters.

Sallah A-Din Belabes, executive editor of Al-Watan, said thearrests were an attempt by the Algerian government to show it safeguarded Islamin the public sphere.

"The arrests were a local initiative, but with a public goal,"Belabes told The Media Line. "This was an exaggeration by thegovernment."

Belabes said that ironically the region of Kabylie where the arrestswere carried out was generally less religious than other parts of Algeria.

"I don't understand why the government focused on this region whenthere are other parts of the country where the fast is not observed,"Belabes added. "This is an attempt to cause a false problem in thisregion." 

 Fadi Al-Qadi, an Amman-based consultant for Human Rights Watch, saidthat the vague language of Ramadan laws in many Arab countries allowedgovernments to infringe on human rights.

"[The laws] could be interpreted by authorities as applying toanything they disagree with: religious speech, political speech, even throwinga party during Ramadan," he told The Media Line.

"In countries like Jordan, Egypt and Gulf states I could bearrested for smoking a cigarette in my office during Ramadan," Al-Qadisaid. "It's really ridiculous."

Al-Qadi added that certain Arab countries were more lax about publicviolations of Ramadan. In Syria and Lebanon government involvement in religiousmatters was reduced since the regimes were more secular and the countriesinclude influential non-Muslim populations.